Natural Ways to Help Treat Liver Disease
Did you know that your liver is actually your largest internal organ (it’s roughly the size of a football!) and responsible for crucial functions like digesting your food, storing energy, plus removing toxins from your body? Many ancient populations, including the Chinese, considered the liver to be the most important organ — hence the word “live” in its name.
One of the hardest-working organs in the body, the liver works tirelessly to detoxify our blood, to produce the bile needed to digest fat, to break down hormones, and to store essential vitamins and minerals, like iron. If you haven’t been eating a vegetable-based diet, regularly getting exercise, and making sure to limit your alcohol and toxin exposure — like most people — you might be in need for a liver cleanse.
It’s the liver’s responsibility to process nutrients absorbed by the intestines so they’re more efficiently absorbed. The liver also regulates blood composition to balance protein, fat and sugar. Finally, it removes toxins from the blood, and breaks down both alcohol and medications.
If the fat in your liver makes up 5–10 percent of the organ’s weight, then you are diagnosed with fatty liver disease. There are two main types of fatty liver disease, alcoholic liver disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is another rare condition that happens when fat builds up in the liver of a pregnant woman.
For people with fatty liver disease, the handling of fat by liver cells is disturbed. Increased amounts of fat are removed from the blood and produced by liver cells, and not enough is disposed of or exported by the cells. As a result of this, fat accumulates in the liver. There is an imbalance between the uptake of fat and its oxidation and export. (1)
Today, we’re faced with so many environmental toxins occurring in our homes, places of work and in our food supply, so it’s essential for our general health and well-being to keep our livers functioning properly.
Types of Fatty Liver Disease
Liver disease is a serious problem that affects millions of people in the Unites States each year alone. One out of every 10 Americans is affected by liver disease, making it one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States yearly. (2)
There are more than 100 types of different kinds of liver diseases including fatty liver syndrome, jaundice, genetic disorders, and various viruses like hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Liver disease can be caused by a range of factors — many are lifestyle related — including a poor diet, drinking too much alcohol, drug use, obesity, infections and environmental pollutants.
Alcoholic liver disease is the result of drinking alcohol excessively. This condition is in direct correlation to the amount of alcohol you drink; your blood is not able to break down the alcohol properly, and it affects your liver. This can also be a hereditary condition because genes that are passed down from your parents may increase your chances of becoming an alcoholic.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is considered the most common liver disorder in the Western world. (3) It’s recognized as one of the most common forms of chronic liver disease and is among the most common forms of chronic liver disease across the globe. NAFLD is most likely to happen in people who are overweight and middle-aged, but recently, due to an increase in childhood obesity, there are more and more cases of children with NAFLD as a result of the standard American diet. People with NAFLD often have high cholesterol and diabetes as well. Typically, this condition is linked to malnutrition, medications, inherited liver disease, fast weight loss and too much bacteria in the small intestine. There are three types of NAFLD:
Nonalcoholic fatty liver is when fat builds up in the liver, but it won’t necessarily hurt you. This means that it’s causing excess liver fat, but there are no complications, which is common. According to a study conducted at the University of Sydney at Westmead Hospital in Australia, NAFLD is present in 17 percent to 33 percent of Americans. (4) This growing percentage parallels the frequency of obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.
Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis happens to a small number of people with fatty liver. The fat causes inflammation in the liver, and this can impair the liver’s ability to function. This can also lead to cirrhosis, or the scarring of the liver.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease-associated cirrhosis is when liver inflammation leads to the scarring of the liver tissue, making the liver heavier than any other solid organ in the body. This scarring can become so severe that the liver no longer functions, leading to liver failure.
Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is a serious condition where fat builds in the liver; it can be dangerous to the baby and mother, especially if it leads to liver or kidney failure. This condition can also be caused by a serious infection or excessive bleeding. When a mother is diagnosed with fatty liver disease during pregnancy, the baby is typically delivered right away, and within a few weeks the mother’s liver will return to normal (sometime this requires time in intensive care).
Liver Disease Symptoms
There are often no symptoms of fatty liver disease, so you may live with the condition and not realize it. Over time — sometimes it can take years or even decades — some signs and symptoms may begin to surface. These symptoms include:
- feeling tired
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- trouble concentrating
- pain in the center or right upper part of belly
- enlarged liver
- bloating and gas
- dark urine
- bruising easily
- excessive sweat
- pale or dark tar-colored stool
- dry and dark patches on neck and under arms
- swelling in the legs and ankles
Sometimes, fatty liver disease leads to cirrhosis. (5) This is the most dangerous and life-threatening type of fatty liver disease. Over time, healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, which prevents the liver from functioning properly. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs and naturally produced toxins, as well as the production of proteins and other substances made by the liver. Symptoms of cirrhosis include:
- the buildup of fluid in the body
- muscle weakness
- internal bleeding
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- liver failure
Commonly, fatty liver disease isn’t noticed until a checkup with your doctor. There are medical tests and devices that can be used to detect the formation of NAFLD. (6) A doctor may notice that a patient’s liver is larger than usual. The disease can also be detected with a blood test; a high number of certain enzymes will suggest that you have fatty liver disease. An ultrasound can be used to get a closer look at your liver, and a biopsy would be able to diagnose NAFLD. Your doctor would take out a tiny piece of liver with a needle and test it for inflammation, signs of fat, or damaged liver cells.
If you think you are at risk of getting NAFLD or you notice some of these symptoms, ask your doctor for these tests.
Root Causes & Risk Factors of Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease occurs when the liver has trouble breaking down fats, causing fat to build up in the liver tissue. Some root causes of this disease include:
There are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of having NAFLD; they include:
- Gastric bypass surgery
- High cholesterol
- High levels of triglycerides in the blood
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
- Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)
According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, obesity is associated with an increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. (7) A major feature of NAFLD, called steatosis, occurs when the rate of hepatic fatty acid uptake from plasma and fatty acid synthesis is greater than the rate of fatty acid oxidation and export. This metabolic imbalance is a significant factor responsible for the formation of NAFLD.
A 2006 review published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology states that NAFLD is extremely common among patients undergoing bariatric surgery, ranging from 84 percent to 96 percent. (8) The review also noted that the disease seems to be most common among men, and it increases with older age and after menopause in women.