Sam was a patient of mine that had struggled with hepatitis C for two decades before finally being successfully cured after a third round of treatment. After that, his life circumstances changed—he traveled often for business and therefore ate out often—and he ended up gaining quite a bit of weight. That led to him developing fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver affects one of the most crucial organs in the body. There are two types of fatty liver. NAFL, or nonalcoholic fatty liver, means there is fat in the liver, but not much in the way of inflammation and scar tissue. NAFL is a less severe form of the disease, but it is a red flag signaling that it’s time for you to act now to make some changes for your body. Being told you have a fatty liver may be the earliest indicator that there is serious trouble ahead. NASH, or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, is a more severe form that puts a person at risk for much more aggressive diseases since it involves inflammation and fibrosis (scar tissue) in the liver. NASH can lead to cirrhosis and even to liver cancer.
The good news is that the liver is one organ that has an amazing ability to heal itself—given the proper nutrition and lifestyle. Good nutrition combined with exercise can potentially slow the damaging effects of NAFL or halt the disease altogether.
Studies have found that even without losing weight, people with fatty liver benefit from regular exercise. Exercise training reduces intrahepatic fat (the fat inside the liver) and free fatty acids (the acids that cause fatty liver to progressively worsen) while improving the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply the body with fuel and oxygen during sustained physical activity.
A regular exercise routine that combines aerobics and weight training can also help raise your basal metabolic rate, which is the energy in calories that are needed to keep the body functioning while at rest. Regular exercise can also improve your strength, balance, and overall wellness—and of course, it can help you lose weight and keep it off.
Exercise also helps control blood sugar, which can keep diabetes at bay. Exercise can increase insulin sensitivity. Since insulin is used to convert the glucose in your body to energy, exercise can help insulin work more efficiently, lower blood sugar levels, and better energize your body.
Losing weight also lowers lipids and triglycerides, two elements in the bloodstream that, when elevated, can raise your risk of heart attack.
For Sam, who had stopped smoking, been sober for more than two decades, and been cured of hepatitis C after three painful therapies, losing weight was just another foe to overcome. “Eating too much ice cream is not going to take me down,” Sam declared. He and his wife both took control of their eating—eliminating sweets and excess calories—and they began a regular exercise program. One year later, his fatty liver was no longer detectable by ultrasound.
Sam is one of my favorite examples of what can happen when value is placed on good nutrition and exercise—and proof that yes, exercise can help turn around fatty liver disease.