The liver is the largest organ in the human body. Located in the upper-right section of your abdomen, the liver is responsible for filtering the blood that comes through your digestive tract before it is pumped to the rest of your body. The liver breaks down and detoxifies often harmful chemicals like alcohol, while also converting vitamins, nutrients and medicines into substances that your body can use.
People often assume that they are only at risk for liver complications if they abuse alcohol. While it is true that those who consume more than two drinks of alcohol per day are at risk for liver disease, there are other ways to develop it. In fact, did you know that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) now affects roughly 20 to 40 percent of all Americans?
NAFLD is the build-up of extra fat in the liver cells that is not caused by alcohol. While some amount of fat in the liver is normal, it is called “fatty liver” — or steatosis — when more than 5 to 10 percent of the liver’s weight is from fat. NAFLD can be caused by a number of non-alcoholic factors, including high cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides in the blood, obesity and type two diabetes.
NAFLD is the most common form of chronic liver disease in the United States. In fact, according to the American Liver Foundation, it affects one in three adults and one in ten children. While NAFLD itself does not cause any immediate health issues, it can lead to more serious conditions. Not only is it one of the country’s leading causes of cirrhosis of the liver, it can also increase your risk for developing heart disease.
Fortunately, fatty liver disease can be avoided or even reversed by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Whether you have already been diagnosed or are trying to decrease your risk of developing this disease, consider taking these steps to improve your health:
- Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight for your body. Your doctor may recommend losing weight through a healthy diet, as weight loss can reduce the amount of fat in the liver.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Eating a nutritious diet is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. The Mediterranean Diet in particular — which is high in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats — can help you lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise (most days of the week) is another important way to maintain a healthy body weight. Make sure to talk to your doctor if you are starting a new exercise plan.
- Take medications as prescribed by your doctor. Certain conditions, such as diabetes or high triglyceride levels, can increase your risk for fatty liver disease. Your doctor may prescribe statins to lower your triglyceride levels or anti-diabetic drugs if you are diabetic or insulin-resistant.
Understanding what fatty liver disease is — and how you can avoid it — is the first step in staying healthy. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your risk for NAFLD.
This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.