The liver is a metabolic powerhouse, and great liver function is critical for good health.
While a normal liver has about 5 percent fat, a level exceeding 10 percent is described as fatty liver, which can lead to a variety of dangerous conditions. An increasing number of people are being diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and are at risk of developing nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
Some 25 percent of liver disease cases are created by NAFLD, and estimates are that 25-35 percent of the U.S. population has it. Many people who are overweight, obese, or prediabetic are also developing NAFLD. Patients with this disease are more likely to also have high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
Many doctors will inform a patient that NAFLD is generally benign. I have clients who are concerned about it, but many don’t know they have NAFLD, or if they know, are not taking any steps to heal it.
The problem is, having NAFLD is a huge risk factor for developing nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which is far from benign. NASH causes inflammation in the liver which leads to scarring and fibrosis, and patients are at higher risk for developing cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer.
Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is seen most commonly in Caucasians and Hispanics, but is also seen in other races. It occurs equally in men and women.
Most people only become educated on what their liver does for them once they are starting to lose function. When liver enzymes or liver function tests are performed, they are really only measuring lipolysis, or liver cell bursting. I call them “cell death” tests, and they’re not truly a good measurement of how well a liver cell is performing its functions.
There are many signs and symptoms that the liver may not be performing well, such as fatigue, joint pain or generalized inflammation. Sometimes we see early signs of liver issues in a patient whose thyroid hormone is not getting activated by the liver. A patient who has normal thyroid labs but feels many symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, high cholesterol, digestive problems, joint pain, or difficulty concentrating would be well-served to support their liver health.
Sometimes chronic inflammatory symptoms like migraine headaches, hormone imbalances, mood disorders, high cholesterol, glucose imbalances, and digestive symptoms like heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome can all be helped by improving liver health.
Naturopathic care is excellent at nourishing and improving liver health, with specific plans of action for each person. Patients can improve their diet to include more healthy oils and proteins, fewer grains, and increased vegetables and fruits for their high levels of antioxidants. Getting rid of things that can be considered inflammatory, like sugar, alcohol, coffee and processed foods, is also important.
Toxin exposure from fine particulate matter in air pollution or other environmental sources including highly processed foods is a known contributing factor to NAFDL and NASH. Various nutrients and liver-supportive herbs are important tools to heal the liver. Castor oil packs can be nourishing and cleansing to the liver, as well as constitutional hydrotherapy, sauna and other detoxification protocols.
The documentary “Supersize Me” shows a person eating McDonald’s food at every meal for 30 days, and within three weeks, that person’s liver enzymes elevate to levels similar to those of a person with cirrhosis. Any good naturopathic doctor watching this knows it is likely not only the high fat, but also the high chemical burden in those foods that were triggering liver cell death.
With approximately 25-35 percent of U.S. population affected by this disease, it is an important reminder that liver function is a critical component of any person’s healthcare plan.