Diet and exercise aren’t just good for your heart and lungs—they also lower your risk of developing a variety of cancers. More specifically, maintaining your weight and avoiding becoming overweight or obese are particularly important for the health of your liver and for reducing the risk of developing liver cancer.
The liver performs many metabolic functions—in other words, it changes nutrients from the food we eat into substances we can use. It also stores these substances and supplies cells with them when needed.
Some of the liver’s functions include:
- Using vitamin K to make proteins to clot blood
- Breaking down fat to produce energy
- Using carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels constant
- Breaking down proteins to produce energy
- Storing vitamins and minerals, and releasing them when needed
Fatty Liver Disease and the Connection with Liver Cancer
Fatty liver disease occurs when fat molecules build up inside liver cells, leading to inflammation of the liver and damage to the liver tissue. This disease used to be seen primarily in people who drink excessively, but now, that is changing.
Today, about 20 percent of American adults have some amount of fatty liver disease, and that increase in non-alcoholic liver disease is attributed to the increase in the rates of obesity and diabetes. The CDC reported in 2016 that nearly 40 percent of Americans were obese. In addition, one in three adults is considered overweight.
These increases in rates of weight gain are especially concerning because researchers have found that people who are obese and overweight are more likely to have two conditions that lead to liver disease: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is a type of NAFLD.
Fatty liver disease can cause few symptoms, and in some cases, can be a stable and low-grade condition for years. However, it can escalate, creating scarring in the liver, or cirrhosis. This condition is often irreversible and also is associated with an increased risk of developing liver cancer.
Some people may feel tired or feel achiness in the upper right side of the abdomen, but for most, fatty liver disease may only be discovered when a routine blood test reveals elevated levels of liver enzymes. If elevated levels of liver enzymes are discovered, your doctor may perform a liver biopsy, which is the definitive way to diagnose fatty liver disease.
For many other people, the symptoms of cirrhosis may be the first sign of a liver problem. These include easily bleeding or bruising, water build-up in the legs or abdomen, jaundice, itchy skin, medicine sensitivity, insulin resistance and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Preventing Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease can be avoided. Weight loss, proper nutrition and exercise are the main treatments for NAFLD and NASH. Weight loss can reduce and even resolve NASH. Significant weight loss may even improve fibrosis, or tissue scarring, in those who have progressed to cirrhosis.
Losing weight alone may not be enough to counter fatty liver disease. Diets low in carbohydrates and rich in omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, be sure to work with your doctor to ensure these conditions are well controlled, since they contribute to the progression of NAFLD and NASH to cirrhosis. Researchers worldwide are actively exploring additional treatments to help your liver be healthy.
Your liver serves a vital function. Help it stay “in shape” by maintaining a healthy weight, diet and lifestyle so your organ can continue performing its critical metabolic function long-term.
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