The holiday season can take a toll on the liver. All those office parties and family festivities can lead us to eat and drink more than usual, and often eat less healthy foods. While you're probably aware that regular and excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the liver and pancreas, you might not be aware of a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is largely preventable through dietary and lifestyle changes.
NAFLD is on the rise, both in adults and children and the condition can cause serious problems, especially as it is asymptomatic in early stages. This means that damage can accumulate long before anyone realises something is amiss.
What causes NAFLD?
In most cases, there is no single cause of NAFLD. Instead, a combination of dietary choices, genetics, lack of exercise, and other factors lead to insulin resistance and increased fatty acid production in the liver, resulting in fatty deposits (steatosis). Over time, the accumulation of fat in the liver can cause the death of healthy hepatocytes (liver cells), which then compromises liver function.
Insulin resistance is a condition where the body's cells stop responding properly to the hormone insulin. This hormone's job is to encourage the cells to take in glucose to fuel the cells' activities. When the cells stop listening to the messages from insulin, the glucose stays in the blood and eventually ends up back in the liver where it is converted into triglycerides.
Triglycerides offer the body a way to store energy as fat, thereby minimising the damage that can be caused by circulating glucose. The problem is that when insulin resistance continues, these fat stores increase, which then prevents the liver from working properly.
Insulin resistance is a key factor in many cases of NAFLD, largely thanks to sedentary lifestyles, and high fat and high sugar diets, as well as increased obesity and overweight. For some people, NAFLD is related to genetic factors such as a predisposition to Metabolic Syndrome. This syndrome includes insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetes, elevated triglyceride levels, and low levels of so-called 'good cholesterol', high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Hemochromatosis is another potential trigger for NAFLD. This genetic condition leads to increased iron deposits in the liver, which then compromise healthy liver function.
Why you should love your liver
The liver is an essential organ of detoxification, and processes almost all the chemicals we ingest, breathe in, and absorb through the skin, as well as any intravenous drugs. These substances include things like heavy metals, phthalates, parabens, pesticides, and vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
The liver is also where we produce certain nutrients and substances required for good health, such as clotting factors and glycogen. And, the liver synthesises cholesterol and triglycerides, meaning that it is heavily involved in maintaining good cardiovascular health and blood sugar regulation.
Given that the liver deals with so many substances every day, it is important that it has the capacity to deal with the toxic load on the body. Once the liver becomes overwhelmed, toxins may begin to build up, which can then further impair the liver's capacity and create a downward spiral.
Supporting your liver naturally
For the most part, the liver can deal with the vagaries of everyday life, and can even cope with the occasional insult in the form of unexpected toxins. To keep your liver in good shape, it is smart to take steps to lower your risk of metabolic syndrome, as well as reducing your exposure to everyday toxins.
- Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats
- Cutting out trans fats and hydrogenated oils
- Exercising regularly (at least 150 minutes a week)
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight
- Getting enough fibre (soluble and insoluble)
- Avoiding foods likely to be contaminated with pesticides
- Minimising the use of products containing parabens, phthalates and other toxins
- Minimising the use of over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) that damage the liver
- Reducing alcohol consumption
- Increasing foods that contain antioxidants and that support normal inflammatory processes
- Reducing foods that contain pro-inflammatory substances (typically animal-derived foods).
Another top tip for liver health is to try to minimise unnecessary stress, and to learn effective stress management techniques for unavoidable stress (rather than relying on alcohol and cigarettes!). Poorly managed stress can contribute to metabolic syndrome and, therefore, NAFLD.
The beauty of the liver is that it has an amazing capacity for regeneration, so it may be possible to reverse damage if it is minimal and caught early. If you suspect you've been a bit hard on your liver, or if you're worried about holiday indulgences catching up with you, talk to your doctor to see if liver enzyme tests are warranted. And, along with the lifestyle and dietary modifications mentioned above, consider the use of evidence-based natural products such as milk thistle, artichoke, curcumin, and glutamine that can all support normal liver function.