By: Dr. Alan Christianson
Fatty liver is expected to become the top cause of liver transplants in the next decade. It’s difficult NOT to see fatty liver disease as one of the most pressing healthcare issues in this country. [1, 2] The good news is it is very reversible.
Liver disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States among 45-54 year olds and, sadly, affects more than 6 million children. As childhood obesity has gone up, researchers are expecting it to cause more complications in kids in coming years.
One problem is that it is hard to diagnose. While we can easily measure things like blood sugar or iron levels, the perfect way to find out if a liver is diseased would be to take it out and analyze it. Liver biopsies are the most accurate way to diagnose fatty liver, but they are not at all practical as screening tools.
When researchers examined 70 such biopsies from healthy relatives hoping to donate liver tissue to a loved one who needed a liver transplant, they found 38.5% of the healthy relatives had fatty liver disease. Another study found that elderly individuals who were hospitalized for non-liver causes had a 46% chance of having fatty liver disease. If that’s not enough, the rates of fatty liver in obese populations may be as high as 90%. 
What is it?
Fatty liver is a sign that the body is not burning its fuel right. When you eat, your body breaks food down into fuel which either gets burned or stored as body fat. When you’re energized, you’re active and alert. Movement is effortless and life is good. On the other hand, the more fat your body stores, the more you’re growing stuff you probably don’t want to grow and the more you’re just running down, feeling far from your best. When you store more, you’re more apt to have more fats, especially triglycerides, get stuck in your liver and enlarge it. A healthy liver has about 1-3% fat. Once you get over 5% things start to go wrong. Once you get over 10%, disease usually sets in. All this fat can lead to problems like a poorly functioning liver, liver tissue scarring and, even, liver cancer.
Are there different kinds of it?
While Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver (NAFL) is the focus of this post, there are other types of fatty liver disease which include:
How does it happen?
Today, about a third of Americans are obese, with rates projected to reach 60% in thirteen states by 2030. Genes that make us more likely to have obesity or diabetes combined with little exercise and poor diet, definitely contribute to fatty liver. Then, as the liver has trouble functioning, other symptoms start to show up, such as reduced energy levels or muscles which don’t repair as readily, which make it harder to exercise or prepare healthier foods. It should come as no surprise that fatty liver is on the rise and this trend doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
However, many who develop fatty liver are lean and have no apparent health issues. This is why screening is important.
Who is most at risk?
Fatty liver disease is more common in those who have Type 2 diabetes or who carry some extra weight. Other factors that have been linked to fatty liver disease include alcohol use, malnutrition, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, genetic predisposition, rapid weight loss, and pregnancy. Medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), steroids, tetracycline, tamoxifen, and calcium channel blockers (blood pressure pills like amlodipine or diltiazem) have also been linked to this condition.
What are the consequences?
Fatty liver can lead to early death from liver damage. Among fatal diseases, it is the only one that has been causing more deaths year after year since the 1940s.
Those with a fatty liver are also at higher risk for liver cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, the most common cause of death in those with fatty liver is heart disease. 
How do I know if I have it?
Get your liver function tested annually.
As many as 80% of people walking around with fatty liver don’t even know they have it. A common way someone learns they have fatty liver is that their doctor finds abnormal liver enzyme levels during an ALT test. Most blood tests include a metabolic panel, also known as a ‘chem panel’ which includes liver enzymes. ALT, or alanine aminotransferase, is an enzyme found in your liver. When liver cells are naturally breaking down, they release some of their contents into your bloodstream. While some of these enzymes in your bloodstream are perfectly healthy, a liver inflamed with excess triglycerides or one that is injured causes ALT scores to creep up.
ALT levels greater than 19 for women and 30 for men are suggestive of fatty liver. Both patients and doctors often miss this because you can be above this cut off, but still in the normal range. 
Some patients do develop symptoms that bring them to our clinic. These can include vague pain and discomfort on the upper right portion of the abdomen or an increase in bloating, gas, or heartburn. Sometimes patients tell us they have pain in the right shoulder. While we can see clues that a person has fatty liver disease from a physical exam, ultrasound. or a liver biopsy, fatty liver is most often diagnosed when a doctor finds abnormal ALT test results.
Is there hope?
Unchecked, the disease can lead to liver transplant and possible fatality. The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, fatty liver can be managed, or even reversed, through a few simple action steps.
Here are the top 10 keys to manage fatty liver disease:
Fatty liver is common and deadly. Thankfully, the pathway back to health is fairly simple. Subtract alcohol, fructose, and trans fats from your diet. Then, add some of the nutrients we mentioned earlier. Eating strategically will give you the energy you need to fuel a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you talk to your doctor about your ALT level and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
Even more so than other parts of your body, your liver can regenerate if you give it a chance. As always, learn about your own health, and never give up!
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(c) 2015- Integrative Health Care, PC
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Dr. Alan Christianson is an Arizona-based Naturopathic Physician who helps people overcome adrenal and thyroid disorders and achieve lasting fat loss. He authored the New York Times’ bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease. Dr. Christianson is the founding physician behind Integrative Health.
Dr. Christianson can be reached at www.MyIntegrativeHealth.com, www.DrChristianson.com and 480-657-0003.