Fatty Liver or NAFLD?

graphic that shows that 30% of people have NAFLD or fatty liver
Do you know if you are one of the 30% who suffers from fatty liver disease?

Check Out These Natural Ways to Improve Your Liver Health

You might think that a sluggish liver is something that only heavy drinkers or fans of fried food have to worry about. However, conditions like fatty liver are becoming increasingly common among people who don’t drink much alcohol at all. That’s why it can be referred to as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease or NAFLD. In fact, fatty liver affects up to 30 percent of us. The effects of this disease can be far-reaching and devastating. The good news is that your liver is one of your most resilient organs and there are ways to reverse this condition.

Hepatic Steatosis

Being a non-drinker doesn’t mean that you are immune to fatty liver disease. Alcoholics are more prone to fatty liver, also called hepatic steatosis. When a heavy drinker has too much fat in their liver, it’s also known as alcoholic fatty liver disease. Perhaps not surprisingly, in non-alcoholics or non-drinkers, this condition is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

What exactly is a fatty liver?

As the name implies, it is a situation where fat accumulates in your liver. Your liver is an important organ that produces bile, among about 500 other functions. Bile is a liquid that helps to metabolize the fat in your diet and flushes waste out of your liver.

It’s normal for your liver to have some fat in and around it. But excessive amounts of fat infiltrating the liver tissues leads to inflammation. That leads to scarring. If left untreated, fatty liver develops into cirrhosis, which creates serious health problems. The end result can be eventual liver failure, which is fatal. In fact, it’s the 12th most common cause of death in the U.S.

Thankfully, for most of us, the consequences of a fatty liver aren’t that severe. However, a fatty liver can take a big toll on your overall well-being and energy levels.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver

Chronic Fatigue

Do you feel chronically tired? If you feel as if you can’t catch up on getting enough rest, or that you just don’t have the energy that you used to, you might want to investigate your liver function. After all, your liver is responsible for helping to balance your hormones, and maintain your blood sugar along with its 500 other functions. When it’s not functioning properly, you could miss out on valuable sources of energy. Also, waste and toxins like ammonia accumulate in your system.

Now, there are many possible reasons for chronic fatigue: low thyroid, low iron, allergies, HPA axis dysfunction, poor quality sleep, not enough sleep, and depression, to name a few. So we can’t jump to Fatty Liver as the cause every time someone feels tired, but it is something that could contribute.

Dull Ache Behind Your Ribs

Have you ever felt a nagging pain in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen, the area just behind your lower rib cage? That can be a sign of liver problems. The pain is often felt as a dull ache, but it can progress. It may become more severe and including nausea or vomiting.

Metabolic Syndrome

You may have no signs or symptoms that there is a problem with your liver, but if you suffer from obesity, type II diabetes, pre-diabetes, or Metabolic Syndrome, then you should have an ultrasound done to see if you also have fatty liver.

Because these symptoms can be easily dismissed as a digestive problem, it’s important to see a medical doctor or naturopathic doctor if you suspect liver issues. That way you can get proper blood testing and an ultrasound to diagnose the condition or to put your mind at ease.

Liver Blood Tests

Blood tests for the liver are referred to as “liver function tests”. However, with the exception of bilirubin, they do not really assess your liver function. They are more reflective of liver damage.


Bilirubin is a waste product from red blood cell breakdown that has to be excreted through your liver. If your liver isn’t doing this well, it accumulates in your body. The end result of that is yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. This is called jaundice.

Liver Enzymes

ALT or Alanine Aminotransferase, AST or Aspartate Aminotransferase, Alkaline phosphatase, and GGT or Gamma Glutamyl Transferase are all enzymes that are produced within the cells of your liver. If the level of any of these enzymes increases in your bloodstream, it can reflect damage to the cells of your liver.


Usually, fatty liver is picked up and diagnosed via an ultrasound.

What are the Causes of Fatty Liver?


The “classic” cause of liver problems is excessive drinking. However, more and more people who are being diagnosed with fatty liver aren’t heavy drinkers at all.

High Sugar and Processed Carbs Diet

A diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates triggers liver issues as well. Although you may have thought that a high-fat diet would be the obvious culprit, simple carbs are equally at risk for creating a fatty liver. That’s because a high-carb diet leads to higher insulin levels that cause inflammation. A high carb diet also alters your gut bacteria in a way that promotes fatty infiltration of the liver. In particular, drinking too many sugar and high fructose corn syrup sweetened drinks is a major cause of liver fat accumulation.


So, what’s to blame? In a word, obesity. That’s largely because obesity creates the kind of inflammation that leads to your liver storing fat. The connection between fatty liver and obesity isn’t a simple matter of how much you weigh. It’s also connected to where that body fat is stored. The fat that accumulates around your belly is more likely to signal liver issues. People with an apple-shaped body are more prone to visceral fat. This is fat that is stored around your internal organs. That type of fat distribution is associated with serious health issues like diabetes and heart disease.

Treating Fatty Liver

Weight Loss

Studies have found that the most effective way to treat fatty liver is to lose weight. Even a small amount of weight loss reduces inflammation, improves fat metabolism, and enhances liver function. As much as we wish there was a magic pill for this, the standards of exercise and a healthy diet are still the best options.


Exercise lowers the level of fat in your liver. Interestingly, the fat-burning benefits of exercise happen even if weight loss isn’t the end result.

Low-intensity cardio, high-intensity interval training, and strength training have all been proven to be effective. The most important thing is to find an activity that you enjoy doing and be consistent with it. There are lots of options for exercise – yoga, walking your dog, swimming, sports, fitness classes, dance, cycling, running, belly-dancing, and martial arts are all possibilities.

Healthy Nutrition

A whole-foods, low-carb approach to dropping extra pounds is often effective. Strategies that have been found to help liver health include:

  • Consuming lots of fibre to improve elimination. Contrary to common misconceptions, though, fibre doesn’t have to come in the form of bread or grains. It can be from fruit and vegetables, legumes, and nuts and seeds.
  • Choosing fish high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines. These are natural anti-inflammatory foods. Bringing inflammation down helps to bring insulin down which then helps to bring the inflammation down.
  • Choosing healthy monounsaturated fats, which are found in foods such as avocados, olive oil, and nuts. These are also anti-inflammatory and their fat content helps you to feel full.
  • Drinking antioxidant-rich green tea. Polyphenols and catechins in green tea have positive health effects.
  • Adding plenty of nutritious and anti-inflammatory green vegetables such as broccoli, which also happens to be very high in fibre.

At the same time, you should limit:

  • Alcohol
  • Sugar
  • Red meat
  • Refined white carbs such as white bread and white rice

Supplements to Support Liver Metabolism

Several supplements show promise in treating fatty liver, including milk thistle and berberine. Discuss these with your Naturopathic Doctor to make sure that they are right for you.

Luckily, your liver is amazingly resilient. In fact, it is the only visceral organ in your body that is able to regenerate itself. A full liver can regenerate from as little as 25% of the original liver! Taking action to protect the health of your liver protects your energy levels and prevents many more serious health problems down the road.

If you have been diagnosed with Fatty Liver Disease or if you would like to go over the lifestyle changes that can help prevent this kind of liver damage, give us a call at 416-481-0222 we can help.

By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc (Hons), ND

Fatty Liver Disease Research












Milk Thistle

picture of milk thistle or silymarin

How Milk Thistle Protects Your Liver

A 2009 study suggests that Milk Thistle may help reduce the liver damage caused by some cancer drugs. In a study of 50 children undergoing chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), researchers found that milk thistle appeared to reduce drug-related liver inflammation.

Liver inflammation is common among children undergoing chemotherapy for ALL — with about two-thirds developing liver toxicity at some point during treatment. That meant that doctors have had to lower patients’ chemotherapy doses — which, in turn, can lower the chances of seeing a complete remission.

That is where milk thistle comes in. The plant’s flowers and seeds have been used for more than 2,000 years to treat disorders of the liver and gallbladder. In recent years, lab research has found that the active substance in milk thistle (an antioxidant called silybin) might help prevent body tissue damage by blocking toxins from breaching cell walls.

The herb should also be considered for preventing liver damage from other chemotherapy regimens for other cancers and is used to treat hepatitis, cirrhosis, and to aid in liver detoxification. If milk thistle can help protect the liver from toxic chemotherapy drugs, then it’s application for prevention of damage to the liver from many other drugs makes sense along with protecting it from damage from pesticides, herbicides and other environmental pollutants.

By Dr Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor

SOURCE: Cancer, online December 14, 2009.

Our licensed naturopathic doctors are the experts on liver detoxification and herbs.  Book a consultation to discuss how we can help keep your liver healthy and functioning optimally.