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The Effects of Obesity on the Liver

In the past, most cases of fatty liver disease were caused by excess alcohol consumption. However, the modern diet has triggered a wave of non-alcoholic cases that has reached epidemic proportions.  Today, it is estimated that upwards of 20% all American adults have the symptoms of fatty liver disease. And studies have shown that up to 90% of obese patients show some form of liver abnormality.

It is widely believed that nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) starts because of excess blood glucose and resultant insulin resistance, called type-2 diabetes. Of course, excess weight and obesity are leading risk factors for this form of diabetes and therefore a significant risk factor for fatty liver disease.

The condition worsens as fatty acids accumulate and circulate in the blood. These fatty acids build up in liver cells which in turn leads to inflammation of the organ – known as hepatitis. If left untreated, the liver can become damaged, sometimes irreparably. The early stages of fatty liver disease typically do not cause any outward symptoms and patients may live with this low-level inflammation for years before it is even noticed. During this time, the liver becomes damaged and begins to develop scar tissue, which, in turn, reduces its effectiveness – this is a condition known as cirrhosis and is not reversible. The liver may alternately or concurrently develop fibrous tissue – this is known as fibrosis. Both conditions are harmful to a patient’s health.

Treatment for Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Not all obese patients will develop fatty liver disease, just as not all patients with fatty liver disease will go onto develop cirrhosis.  However, some of the increased risk can be mitigated by losing weight and lowering cholesterol levels. Further, patients with any form of liver disease should avoid alcohol.

There are no medications or supplements that have shown significant effectiveness in treating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, therefore, weight loss is the only recommended effective treatment we know of.

Prevention is Key

Preventing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease does not require vaccination or medication. Rather eating well, exercising and maintaining a normal weight eliminate most of the risk factors. Further, keeping a healthy liver reduces the risk of chronic, irreversible damage from cirrhosis.

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