How do you get people to care about a disease with no symptoms? That’s the challenge for doctors worried about non-alcoholic fatty liver disease which can lead to liver cancer and liver failure – often with little warning.
“By 2020 more people will have liver cirrhosis caused by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease than with hepatitis C and hepatitis B combined,” says Dr Alex Hodge of Melbourne’s Monash Medical Centre and University.
The Gastroenterological Society of Australia estimates that translates to more than 7 million Australians by 2030. About 5% will have developed cirrhosis.
“That’s 400,000 people with liver cirrhosis that could be avoided,” says Hodge.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is an umbrella term for a range of liver conditions affecting people who drink little to no alcohol. As the name implies, the main characteristic of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is too much fat stored in liver cells.
The condition is also closely linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of abnormalities including increased abdominal fat, poor ability to use the hormone insulin, high blood pressure and high blood levels of triglycerides, a type of fat.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease usually causes no signs and symptoms. When it does, they may include: Enlarged liver, fatigue and pain in the upper right abdomen.
Experts don’t know exactly why some people accumulate fat in the liver while others do not. Similarly, there is limited understanding of why some fatty livers develop inflammation that progresses to cirrhosis. However, experts do know the disease is linked to being overweight or obese, having insulin resistance, high blood sugar and a high level of fats in the blood.
They also have a threefold risk of type 2 diabetes and double the risk of heart disease.
Losing weight around the middle and eating healthier food is the only way to reverse or reduce it, Hodge says.
His research found evidence that fasting might improve fatty liver disease. A study of patients at Monash Medical Centre found that restricting eating (but not kilojoules) to just an eight-hour period between noon and 8pm improved markers of fatty liver disease and reduced abdominal fat.
Dr Sandra Cabot says other things you can do to help reverse a fatty liver include, avoiding sugar, increasing the amount of raw plant food in your diet, eating protein with every meal and avoiding huge meals.
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