Science Looking at New Ways to Treat Liver Disease
It’s a silent disease; one that affects between 20 and 30 percent of the population. And while those figures are alarming enough as is, what makes the situation worse is that many people don’t even know that they have it. What we are talking about is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
According to Dr. Keyur Patel, a hepatologist at the University of Toronto, NAFLD starts with the accumulation of excess fat in the liver and people with metabolic risk factors like obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are more prone to the condition.
“In my work as a hepatologist, I see people who have both mild and serious cases of fatty liver disease. On the more advanced end of the spectrum — when the fat in the liver becomes inflamed — the condition is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This can lead to progressive scarring, and eventually, severe scarring called cirrhosis in some patients.”
At present, NASH represents the biggest burden of chronic liver disease that the public faces today, with as many as 12 percent of people having the condition. Sadly, it gets worse.
“Until the disease progresses to liver failure or cirrhosis and the liver begins to fail, NASH doesn’t usually cause any symptoms. That means many people go undiagnosed, which is a big problem because it affects such a large population. And for some people, the diagnosis comes too late for the damage to be reversed,” says Dr. Patel.
“Right now, the only measures that have been shown to turn the damage back are lifestyle changes like adopting a healthier diet, reducing sugars, better managing portion sizes and getting more exercise,” Patel goes on to say. “A weight loss of five to seven per cent can play a big role in reducing the fat and inflammation associated with NASH.”
Today, researchers are studying dozens of ways to tackle these troublesome diseases, such as targeting the fat, how insulin is regulated or how inflammatory processes unfold before fat even reaches the liver. However, because there are so many potential routes to explore, there could just as easily be the same number of potential drug targets, says Patel. He hopes that some combination of them will help reduce the inflammation and prevent scarring associated with these diseases.
At present, when it comes to tackling diseases of the liver, it is often changes in lifestyle the yield the best results. Here are some suggestions from Dr. Patel:
Maintain a healthy weight.
If you need to lose weight, do it slowly and follow a diet that’s palatable — no-carb or high protein diets may not be sustainable in the long term.
Eat foods that are low in saturated fat and high in fiber.
Reduce your sugar intake — a great way to do this is by cutting back on pop and other sweetened drinks high in fructose.
Cook at home more often.
Get regular exercise.
Liver diseases, much like other ailments, either develop as a result of our lifestyle changes or can be treated by changing them. In any event, it is too often that we are turning to the medical community for answers to problems that we have gotten ourselves into. Remember the timeless adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”