Archive for July, 2011

“I am Jill’s Liver.”

Some months back, I was lucky enough to have seen the Bodies Exhibition.  The cross-sectioned bodies give you an up close, three-dimensional, and most importantly, real view of the human body.

It was eye-opening. One of the most notable things to me was how big the liver was in comparison to the stomach, heart, or brain. It helped me to realize how amazing the liver is.  Most know how obviously vital the brain and heart are. The liver, however, doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. At three pounds,  it’s the largest glandular organ in the body. This might be fitting because the liver has a lengthy to-do list:

  • Filtering blood from the digestive tract before sending it to the rest of the body.
  • Detoxifying chemicals and metabolizes drugs.
  • Producing 80% of the body’s cholesterol needs. The liver adjusts its production according one’s diet: the more cholesterol one consumes, the less cholesterol it makes and vice versa.
  • Processing fructose.
  • Converting thyroid hormone from T4 (inactive form) to T3 (active form).
  • Using its significant storage capacity to house glycogen and  Vitamins A, D, K, and B12.
  • Secreting bile which aids in fat digestion.
  • Making proteins essential for blood clotting.

The liver is clearly a hard worker. It does its best to clean up the toxins we ingest and/or are exposed to. I was tempted to write the post in the first person as a homage to this scene in Fight Club, but I decided it might get ridiculous rather quickly. But honestly, it’s important to love your liver. The consequences of mistreating it are far-reaching:

Hepatitis: There are several types, but they are different forms of inflammation in the liver.

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): This is when excessive fat stores in the liver. This can lead to hepatitis and cirrhosis. The symptoms can include chronic fatigue, jaundice, upper abdominal discomfort, and edema.

Cirrhosis: This occurs when fibrous tissue builds up in the liver from replacing dead liver cells. Symptoms often don’t appear until the liver gradually shows signs of not being able to carry out its duties.  When they do show up, someone with cirrhosis might experience fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and libido, sensitivity to medications (since the liver processes them), easy bruising/bleeding, etc.

Liver Cancer: The most common type of liver cancer is Hepatocellular carcinoma, and it is most commonly caused by Cirrhosis. Those with Hepatitis B or C are more likely to develop this form of liver cancer. Liver cancer shares many of the symptoms listed above. It can also cause gastrointestinal bleeding and liver failure. Liver cancer is mostly fatal: it can kill a patient within a year.

Like the liver, researchers are noting that the number of liver disease-related deaths has been underestimated. If viral hepatitis, liver cancer and obesity-related fatty liver diseases are included, then deaths from liver disease bump from the 12th leading cause of death to the 8th. And liver disease is the fourth leading cause of death for those between 45 and 64.

Furthermore, the liver plays a key role in the development of insulin resistance. Researchers have found that the liver makes and secretes a hormone  that causes insulin resistance: they found higher levels of selenoprotein P (SeP) in diabetic people in comparison with nondiabetic people. Furthermore, when researchers gave healthy mice SeP, they became insulin resistant, and their blood sugar increased. When they were given treatment to block SeP, their insulin resistance and blood sugar decreased.

This begs the question, “What do I have to do to keep my liver healthy?” The first place to start is to keep the major liver offenders in check: alcohol, cigarettes, trans fats, and sugar. Since the dangers of alcohol, cigarettes, and trans fats are more well-known, I will focus on fructose.

More and more studies are linking high levels of fructose consumption with fatty liver disease. Glucose is a sugar that is processed by every cell in the body; fructose, however, can only be processed by the liver. So eating lots of fructose makes the liver work harder. And, as the list at the beginning of this post illustrates, the liver is a 3 pound beast with more important things to do.

Interestingly, there is evidence that obesity and insulin resistance are greater risk factors for developing fatty liver than moderate alcohol consumption.

Fatty liver is an insidious disease. People with fatty liver are five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those without fatty liver. Fatty liver is also correlated to insulin resistance and elevated serum lipids. And if fatty liver goes on untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis which can lead to cancer. Fatty liver develops earlier on the timeline of liver disease progression. Fortunately, there is plenty one can do to maintain liver health before it is too late:

  • Eat medium chained triglycerides like coconut oil, ghee, and MCT oil. These fats do not require bile, so they do not tax the liver.
  • Keep alcohol consumption slow and moderate. If this is difficult, seek professional help.