Liver disease is starting to take center stage in the world’s chronic—and in some forms, potentially deadly—diseases. But it’s not news to me, or to the patients I’ve been treating for more than 25 years.
That’s why I talk to patients every day about better nutrition. I want to help people avoid the problems I treat patients for every day. End-stage liver disease is a slow, painful death. It’s agonizing for everyone involved—the patient, family, friends, and health care providers. But if we can intervene even one or two years earlier, we can help people turn some forms of liver disease around.
There are two types of liver disease that most people are referring to when they talk about what’s becoming known as “the silent killer.” The more aggressive of the two is NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis). NASH can lead to inflammation and deadly problems such as fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL), on the other hand, is a disease in which fat builds up in the liver. With either of these diseases, there are few outwardly identifiable warning signs, so it’s easy to feel like nothing’s wrong.
Fatigue, for instance, is one of the first symptoms of NAFL, and it’s easy to write it off to something else, such as stress. But at age 30, 40, or 50, chronic fatigue is not normal. Gradual weight gain to the point of obesity is not normal either. When that leads to symptoms such as swelling of the feet and legs, people often chalk it up to being on their feet too long. For someone who is overweight, eats mostly processed foods, never exercises, and is prediabetic or has type 2 diabetes, fatigue and leg swelling are signs that need to be checked by a physician.
While NASH is more likely to progress to the point of needing a liver transplant, NAFL when caught early, can potentially be reversed.
That begins by eating better. The liver is one of the hardest working organs in the body, and it’s also known for repairing itself when fed a liver-friendly diet.
Give your liver a fighting chance by limiting or eliminating the following from your diet:
- Fried foods
- Processed foods
- White bread
- Red meat and deli meats
- Sodas and sweetened drinks
Add in the following for a lower-calorie diet that is sure to help you shed unhealthy pounds:
- Fresh vegetables including leafy greens
- Fresh fruits
- Lean protein such as fish and grain-fed chicken and turkey
- Healthy fats such as nuts and avocados
- Whole grains
Another way to turn back the clock? Exercise. Develop a mindset of moving more—start slow and work up to 30 minutes a day—and you have a better chance of keeping NAFL at bay.
As a hepatologist, someone trained in diseases of the liver, I have a real concern for the future. Currently, there are not enough formally trained liver specialists to see all the patients with a need, and becoming a hepatologist takes seven years of training beyond four years of medical school. And even when a young physician today specializes in something related to gastroenterology, they focus on intestinal disorders and performing endoscopic procedures. They don’t want to deal with the ugliness of liver disease. If this need continues to grow, what’s going to happen when the fatty liver epidemic reaches estimated crisis levels in 2030?
Yes, liver disease is an ugly picture, but there is hope. Watching your intake and getting into a habit of exercising regularly can help heal your liver and keep you healthy for the long term.