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NAFLD: What You Need to Know About Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease and How to Treat It

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is becoming increasingly prevalent.


We continue to see increasing numbers of people with elevated liver enzymes and inflammation. After further evaluation with labs and imaging it is not the often suspected infection with Hepatitis Virus but instead turns out to be fat infiltration of the liver, which causes a great deal of damage over time.



In this post we hope to shed some light on Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, including its development, impact, and effective strategies for management and improvement. Here is an overview to enhance your understanding and guide you toward actionable steps for a healthier liver.


What is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)?


NAFLD is a condition characterized by excessive fat stored in liver cells, not caused by alcohol consumption. It ranges from simple fatty liver – also called steatosis - to Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH), which can progress to cirrhosis or liver cancer if not managed properly. This disease is often associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.


How Does NAFLD Develop?


The exact cause of NAFLD remains unclear, but several factors contribute to its development:


  • Obesity and Overnutrition: Excessive caloric intake, particularly from fats and sugars, can lead to obesity and insulin resistance. This drives fat accumulation in the liver.

  • Insulin Resistance: A key factor in NAFLD, where the liver and other tissues do not respond well to insulin, leading to much higher-than-normal insulin levels and increased fat storage in liver cells.

  • Genetic Predisposition: Genetics can play a role in an individual’s susceptibility to fatty liver disease.

  • Metabolic Factors: Conditions like hypertension, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol levels are closely linked with NAFLD.


The pathogenesis of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has not been fully elucidated. The most widely supported theory implicates insulin resistance as the key mechanism leading to hepatic steatosis, and perhaps also to steatohepatitis.



Another Factor to Consider:


Fructose contributes to the development of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) through several mechanisms. Its role in NAFLD has become a significant concern, given the high amounts of fructose in the modern diet, primarily from added sugars in processed foods and sweetened beverages. Here's how fructose can lead to fatty liver disease:


1. Metabolism in the Liver - Unlike glucose, which can be metabolized by nearly all cells in the body, fructose is primarily metabolized in the liver. When consumed in large amounts, fructose floods the liver, where it's rapidly converted into fat through de novo lipogenesis (the process of converting sugar to fat in the liver). This process not only increases the amount of fat stored in liver cells but also can lead to increased blood levels of triglycerides, a type of fat.


2. Insulin Resistance - High intake of fructose has been linked to insulin resistance, a condition where the body's cells become less responsive to insulin. Insulin resistance is a key factor in the development of NAFLD, as it leads to increased fat storage in the liver. Moreover, insulin resistance exacerbates the accumulation of fat by making it more difficult for the body to use fat as an energy source, leading to further fat accumulation in the liver.

3. Increased Fat Production and Storage - Fructose consumption promotes the liver's conversion of carbohydrates into fat, a process known as de novo lipogenesis. This not only increases liver fat but also contributes to the development of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increases the risk for heart disease and other health problems. The fat produced in the liver can also be exported to other tissues, contributing to overall body fat and further promoting insulin resistance.


The Modern Problem with Fructose and NAFLD


An often-asked question is, why has fructose become such a central issue in the development of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) today, given that it is found in natural foods like honey, fruit, and root vegetables—foods humans have consumed for millennia? The answer lies in the drastic change in how fructose is consumed in the modern diet.


Historically, fructose was ingested in small amounts, primarily through fruits and other natural sources, which also provide dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These natural sources of fructose come with their own natural regulators, such as fiber, which slows down the absorption of sugar and mitigates its impact on the liver. Moreover, the quantities of fructose consumed were relatively low, given the seasonal availability of fruits and the labor-intensive nature of harvesting natural sweeteners like honey.


The landscape of fructose consumption underwent a dramatic transformation with the advent of manufactured foods. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener derived from corn, began to be produced in large quantities in the 1970s. It was quickly adopted by the food and beverage industry due to its low cost and high sweetness level, becoming a staple ingredient in a wide array of processed foods, including soft drinks, baked goods, and candies. As a result, the average intake of fructose skyrocketed, far exceeding the levels humans had historically consumed from natural sources.


This surge in fructose consumption is a key driver of the obesity epidemic and metabolic diseases, including NAFLD. Unlike glucose, which can be metabolized by every cell in the body, fructose is primarily processed in the liver. When consumed in high amounts, the liver is overwhelmed, converting excess fructose into fat. This not only leads to fatty liver but also contributes to insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.


The issue, therefore, is not fructose itself but the quantity and the form in which it is now consumed. The human body is not designed to handle the excessive amounts of fructose found in manufactured foods, leading to a host of health problems, including NAFLD.

 

So, how do we improve or treat fatty liver disease? Here are 5 Ways to Improve or Treat Fatty Liver Disease.


1. Adopt a Healthy Diet - Focusing on a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can significantly reduce liver fat. Limit intake of saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and sugars to manage body weight and reduce liver fat accumulation.


2. Regular Physical Activity - Engaging in regular exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming, can help reduce liver fat and combat NAFLD. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly.


3. Weight Management - Losing weight can dramatically improve liver health. A weight loss of 5-10% of body weight can reduce liver fat and inflammation.


4. Manage Metabolic Risks - Controlling conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia with the help of healthcare professionals can significantly reduce the risk of NAFLD progressing.


5. Avoid Harmful Substances - Limiting or avoiding alcohol and unnecessary medications that can harm the liver plays a crucial role in managing NAFLD.


Conclusion


Understanding the impact of modern dietary habits on liver health is crucial in combating NAFLD. By reverting to a diet that emphasizes whole, natural sources of food and limits processed foods rich in high-fructose corn syrup, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of developing fatty liver disease. It's a call to action for more mindful consumption habits and a reminder of the profound impact diet has on our overall health.


If you or someone you know is struggling with weight management, experiencing symptoms of liver disease, or has concerns about NAFLD, it’s crucial to seek professional guidance. Contact Dr. Chris Marshall and the team at Medical Specialty Clinic for comprehensive care and personalized treatment plans. Call us at 731-257-1500 or visit our website at medspecialtyclinic.com for more information.


In managing NAFLD, early intervention and lifestyle modifications can make a significant difference. Let us help you take the first step toward a healthier liver and a healthier life.


References

  • Younossi, Z. M., et al. (2018). Global epidemiology of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease—Meta-analytic assessment of prevalence, incidence, and outcomes. Hepatology.

  • Chalasani, N., et al. (2018). The diagnosis and management of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: Practice guidance from the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Journal of Hepatology.

  • European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) & European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO). (2016). EASL-EASD-EASO Clinical Practice Guidelines for the management of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology.

  • Basaranoglu, M., Basaranoglu, G., & Sabuncu, T. (2015). Fructose as a key player in the development of fatty liver disease. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 19(8), 1166-1172. This article reviews how fructose consumption leads to liver fat accumulation and insulin resistance, highlighting the metabolic pathways involved.

  • Jensen, T., Abdelmalek, M. F., Sullivan, S., Nadeau, K. J., Green, M., Roncal, C., Nakagawa, T., Kuwabara, M., Sato, Y., Kang, D. H., & Tolan, D. R. (2018). Fructose and sugar: A major mediator of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology, 68(5), 1063-1075. This comprehensive review discusses the role of dietary fructose in the pathogenesis of NAFLD, including its effects on metabolism, insulin resistance, and liver inflammation.

  • Softic, S., Cohen, D. E., & Kahn, C. R. (2016). Role of Dietary Fructose and Hepatic De Novo Lipogenesis in Fatty Liver Disease. Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 61(5), 1282-1293. This article explores how fructose consumption contributes to fatty liver disease through increased de novo lipogenesis and insulin resistance.

  • American Liver Foundation. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. This resource provides an overview of NAFLD, its causes, and the impact of diet on liver health, accessible at American Liver Foundation's website. https://liverfoundation.org/

  • Mayo Clinic. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This page offers a comprehensive overview of NAFLD, including symptoms, causes, and treatment options, available at Mayo Clinic's website. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20354567

 

Empower yourself with knowledge and take proactive steps towards managing your liver health. Contact Medical Specialty Clinic today for expert care and support.

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