The facts about fatty liver

HERE'S a myth about fatty liver debunked: it is not a disease specific to drinkers or fat people.

"Thin people or those of average build can also get fatty liver. In fact, people can develop fatty liver even if they do not experience any health conditions such as obesity or diabetes," said Dr Yasumasa Kodo, a renowned researcher from Japan.

"Today, many adults and even children have increased fat in their liver cells, giving rise to fatty liver.

"The liver is not unlike a garbage disposal. It acts like a filter, refining and detoxifying everything that we eat, breathe and absorb through our skin, and acts as our body's internal chemical power plant," said Dr Kodo.

Based on a joint research project with the Okayama National University in Japan, Dr Kodo has been studying the potential of spirulina as a means of prevention against fatty liver disease.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Professor Keiun Kodo, the founder of Elken Spirulina, Dr Kodo has been devoted to research and product development of spirulina.

A rich natural source of iron, calcium, vitamin E, betacarotene, chlorophyll, antioxidants, vitamin B12 and fat-free proteins, the plant is believed to offer many health benefits.

Dr Kodo said excess fat in the liver is not caused by eating fatty food alone.

Instead, it occurs when there is a breakdown in the fat metabolism function of the liver which may cause fat to accumulate in the liver cells.

"The liver may have lost its ability to change these fats into a form that can be eliminated easily. Most patients diagnosed with fatty liver learn about their condition when they are undergoing medical tests for other reasons.

"Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when the liver tissues have more than the accepted amount of fat, but without inflammation or damage.

"The term refers to a wide spectrum of liver disease, ranging from simple fatty liver (steatosis) to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) to cirrhosis, a condition where the inflamed liver becomes scarred and hardened, leading to liver failure."'

NAFLD affects all age groups, including children, but is common in the middle-aged group who are overweight, obese, have diabetes and elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels and who do not consume excessive amounts of alcohol.


Complications from fatty liver

Other conditions that may cause fat to build-up in the liver cells include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Malnutrition
  • Rapid weight loss

"Although fatty liver may not cause damage, sometimes the build-up of excess fat leads to inflammation of the liver in a condition called steatohepatitis, which does cause liver damage. If inflammation from a fatty liver is linked to alcohol abuse; this is known as alcoholic steatohepatitis. Otherwise, the condition is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH," said Dr Kodo.

Highlighting the health risk of fatty liver, Dr Kodo said NASH can damage the liver for years without causing any symptoms, and is one of the top three leading causes of cirrhosis.

He said statistics have shown that people with a body mass index reading of over 30 are at risk of getting fatty liver disease.

The prevalence of fatty liver ranges from 10 per cent to 24 per cent in various countries.

According to Dr Kodo, in Asia, the prevalence of fatty liver disease is 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

Describing the rise as worrying, he noted that there was a rapid increase in obesity in countries like Japan, China and Korea.

In Malaysia, approximately 17 per cent of the population is believed to be afflicted with fatty liver disease.

Who is at risk of fatty liver?

Risk factors commonly linked to fatty liver disease are:

  • Overweight (body mass index of 25-30)
  • Obesity (body mass index above 30)
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated triglyceride levels

How is fatty liver treated?

Non-alcoholic steatohepatitisis (NASH) is similar to alcoholic disease but can also occur in people who drink little or no alcohol.

There are no medical or surgical treatments for fatty liver but there are steps you can take to help prevent or reverse some of the damage. In general, if you have fatty liver, and in particular if you have NASH, you should:

  • Lose weight safely. This means losing no more than 0.45kg to 0.9kg a week.
  • Lower your triglycerides through diet, medication or both
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Control your diabetes, if you have it
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet
  • Increase your physical activity
  • Go for checkups for liver care

* Source: American Liver Foundation