You may never have heard of it, but non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) was recently declared a health problem of near-epidemic proportions. With few or no symptoms, the condition is an accumulation of fat in the liver, which most commonly affects the overweight. As its name suggests, it is not necessarily caused by drinking alcohol, although regular drinkers are at far higher risk. Alarmingly, NAFLD is sharply on the rise in millennials, and a new study by researchers at Bristol University found that 20 per cent of young people analysed had fatty deposits on their liver. Thankfully, the condition can be reversed in its early stages, but if left to worsen, NAFLD can lead to serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and even liver cancer.
Although NAFLD is present in an estimated 20-30 per cent of adults and children worldwide, few people are aware of it, making it harder to combat. It can also affect those in otherwise good health – including Good Morning Britain presenter Kate Garraway. In January 2018, she revealed that doctors spotted a ‘worryingly high’ level of fat in her liver after an indulgent Christmas. She said: ‘If your liver is storing fat, then it’s not working as it should be, to do all the things that it’s there to do.’ As a result, Kate, 51, overhauled her diet and quit booze for a month – seeing her liver fat drop by 30 per cent.
Although singer Peter Andre is famed for his six-pack, the 46 year old piled on half a stone in just seven days when he took part in TV show The Junk Food Experiment earlier this year. Tests conducted on him after a week of burger-bingeing showed his liver fat had rocketed by a third. ‘I never thought it was possible that food can be doing that sort of damage, and it clearly is,’ he said. Not only that, but fatty liver was cited in the coroner’s report as one of the factors that contributed to singer George Michael’s death in 2016.
Meanwhile, many celebs – including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kourtney Kardashian and Liv Tyler – swear by detox juices and supplements to ‘cleanse’ the liver. But medics argue that these are a myth and that the liver detoxes itself naturally if a healthy lifestyle is followed. With so little known and understood about NAFLD, OK! takes a closer look at what it all means…
What Is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
While most fat lies under our skin where we can see it, it can also settle unnoticed in organs such as the liver. Yorkshire-based GP and health coach Julie Coffey tells OK!: ‘NAFLD is a lifestyle disease that’s affecting more and more people of all ages. It’s caused by a bad diet and overeating – especially too much sugar and refined carbs.’ While we might assume that all liver disease is caused by drinking, this is not the case with NAFLD. ‘The non-alcoholic form of fatty liver disease is much more common than the alcohol-induced kind nowadays – but the result is the same.’ However, heavy drinking does worsen NAFLD. ‘Eating badly as well as drinking too much puts twice the amount of pressure on the liver,’ Midlands-based GP Rachel Pryke reveals. ‘Alcohol creates a double whammy because it’s toxic to the liver and causes fat deposits.’
What Else Contributes To It?
As well as poor diets laden with takeaways, crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks, a lack of physical activity is a key factor. ‘As a society we have normalised people just sitting around and looking at their phones. Our livers have not evolved to cope with that – or our heavily processed diets,’ says Dr Pryke, a clinical advisor on nutrition. ‘The message to young people is that health shouldn’t be taken for granted.’
Why Is Fatty Liver Such A Problem For Younger Generation?
It’s largely due to more young people being overweight than ever before. ‘We’re seeing an epidemic of obesity even in young children, which is storing up big problems for later life,’ says Dr Pryke. ‘If you’ve already put fat down by the time you reach your teens, you’re going to start developing major problems such as diabetes or liver disease in your thirties or forties. That’s one of our big concerns as doctors.’
What Are The Signs Of It?
Unfortunately, there are usually none. ‘We can’t rattle off a list of symptoms,’ says Dr Pryke. ‘Fatty liver is a silent disease until very late on, and we often only pick it up if we’re doing an ultrasound for something else. However, we might actively look for it if a person is at risk of other metabolic conditions like diabetes. If they’re a heavy drinker as well, we may suspect their liver is struggling.’ Occasionally though, people may experience mild symptoms. ‘Sometimes you may have a dull discomfort in the upper right abdomen due to swelling of the liver because it’s got fat,’ says Dr Coffey. ‘You may also feel generally below par and tired.’
Exactly How Serious Is Nafld?
While small amounts of liver fat should not cause problems for most, severe cases can lead to cirrhosis – a scarring of the liver that can prove fatal. ‘This is one of the worst-case scenarios,’ Dr Coffey warns. From here, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, or even liver cancer. ‘It’s estimated that NAFLD affects up to 30 per cent of the population,’ says Dr Pryke. ‘In most cases, it will be benign, but cirrhosis slowly develops in about ten per cent of people. Of those, three or four per cent will end up with liver cancer. It’s a broad-based pyramid; lots of people will have fatty liver and get away with it. But at the top of the pyramid, some will die relatively young due to it progressing.’
Can It Be Treated?
In the early stages, NAFLD can be cured – but not by medicine. ‘The only way to treat it is to stop doing what’s causing it,’ insists Dr Coffey. ‘That means eating real, whole foods instead of processed, refined rubbish.’ Dr Pryke agrees. ‘Fatty liver disease – whether alcohol-related or non-alcoholic – is reversible with lifestyle change. Keep an eye on both the measures and units of alcohol you drink, and also understand portion sizes better. As there’s no medication to help, avoiding liver disease means looking carefully at the three contributory factors: diet, exercise and alcohol.’
Does ‘Detoxing’ Aid Liver Health?
Many A-listers advocate sporadic liver-cleansing, including Kourtney Kardashian – who last year recommended her own cucumber, lemon and ginger-infused drink to ‘detox your body’. But experts say this advice is misleading. ‘The liver is the main detoxing organ of the whole body, and the way to cleanse it is to reduce the amount of toxins it deals with. Reducing alcohol is a big factor here,’ Dr Coffey says. Giving the liver a break from continual calorie consumption is also naturally detoxifying. ‘By stopping all-day snacking and not eating or drinking for at least 12 hours in every 24, the liver can concentrate on itself rather than the constant onslaught.’
FEATURE: Anna Pointer
PHOTOGRAPHS: GETTY, SHUTTERSTOCK