Did you know that up to 30% of the Western world’s adult population suffers from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease ?
As if that’s not terrifying enough, it turns out that it’s becoming the most common liver disease in the world, and is considered a “major cause” of liver disease-related illnesses and premature deaths.
Talk about a sobering realization!
Our livers play a critical role in the detoxification of our bodies, breaks down nutrients, and metabolizes medications, among other things. It’s one of the most important organs in our bodies, and without it functioning at optimum capacity (due to NAFLD), we can suffer a lot of health problems.
Including, it turns out, diseases that we should be easily protected against.
Below, we’re going to look at how non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can lead to immune-related problems, showing just how important it is for you to take care of your liver before small problems become widespread.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition (or range of conditions) characterized by a build-up of fat stored in the liver. It’s called “non-alcoholic” because it’s specifically common to those who consume little or no alcohol. (“Fatty liver disease” or hepatic steatosis is the name for alcohol-induced build-up of fats.)
Though NAFLD usually presents no symptoms (save for minor fatigue or pain/discomfort in the upper right abdomen), it can lead to the development of non-alcoholic hepatis steatosis (NASH), a more aggressive form of the disease marked by inflammation, liver scarring, and ultimately liver failure. Symptoms of NASH include:
Enlargement of the blood vessels beneath the surface of your skin
Swelling in your abdomen
Jaundice (yellowing of your eyes and skin)
Enlargement of your spleen
It’s not exactly clear what causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (unlike its counterpart, which has a clear origin in heavy alcohol consumption). It’s believed that obesity, high blood triglyceride levels, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood sugar, PCOS, hypopituitarism, hypothyroidism, and insulin resistance can all contribute to and increase your risk of developing NAFLD.
Essentially, anything that elevates the levels of fat in your bloodstream may contribute to NAFLD. After all, those fats in your bloodstream have to go somewhere, and they often end up stored in the liver. Over time, this can cause inflammation, decrease liver function, and even cause scarring (cirrhosis).
Older people, diabetics, and those with high body fat (particularly concentrated in their abdomen) are most likely to develop NAFLD and ultimately NASH.
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Science has found some interesting links between NAFLD and your immune system.
For example, in one 2018 paper , researchers found that “presence of excess fat in the liver in US images in patients with NAFLD correlates positively with the values of white blood cells”. Essentially, those with build-ups of fat in their livers had significantly lower white blood cell count. Given that white blood cells are our body’s primary defense against disease and infection, you can see why that’s such a serious problem!
But according to another paper from 2021 , the problem can be even more serious than we realize. As the paper stated, “The liver, in addition to being a vital metabolic organ, also plays a significant role in the human immune system. Liver macrophages (Kupffer cells) and lymphocytes constitute about 20% of total liver cells, and they are the first immune cells to process various antigens and pathogens from the gastrointestinal tract.”
Whoa, read that again! “The first immune cells to process various antigens and pathogens from the gastrointestinal tract.” What that means is that before the food even hits our bloodstream, our liver is processing it and protecting our bodies.
Basically, those liver cells act before the white blood cells can kick in and take control of any pathogens and antigens. Which means that if the liver is functioning at less-than-optimum capacity (because of NAFLD), our bodies are more vulnerable to invaders.
But it gets worse. In that same paper, it was explained that NAFLD developing to NASH can cause “abnormal activation of the innate immune system” that in turn “leads to persistent low-grade inflammation which leads to tissue injury and fibrosis and has an important role in carcinogenesis”.
That’s right, carcinogenesis, as in the formation of cancer. All because of the impact the build-up of fats in your liver can have on your body.
There is good news, though! Reducing your risk of NAFLD requires a few simple changes to your lifestyle, but it is (largely) a disease that can be managed, avoided, and even eliminated. All you have to do is:
Exercise regularly. Shoot for at least 5-6 days per week. Even just moderate and light exercise is enough to clean up the build-up of fats!
Eat a healthy diet. Limit your intake of fats and cholesterol-raising foods. Switch to a plant-heavy diet that consists mainly of whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and healthy plant-based fats.
Maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight. Get help from a nutritionist, dietician, or fitness coach to help you get your body fat percentage back into a “healthy” or “normal” range and lose the excess abdominal fat that is increasing your risk of NAFLD.
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