It’s surprising that a health problem affecting as many as 100 million Americans isn’t better known. Part of the reason that this problem remains overlooked is that it often has no symptoms, can’t be easily treated in conventional medicine, and can develop in people even without any of the known risk factors.
Even worse, it can steal your memory. But fortunately, when you take the natural approach, you can protect yourself and even undo some of the damage…
I’m talking about a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). And though its name implies that the liver is the only organ affected, that’s not the case. This disease also endangers the health of your brain and memory.
NAFLD Lowers Cognitive Function
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease tends to be found in those who are overweight and obese or have diabetes and high blood fats. But even people without any of these risk factors can develop it.
NAFLD is no longer regarded solely as a liver disease because research over the last decade has shown it affects multiple organs and systems that lead to clinical conditions outside of the liver. And surprisingly, one key organ that suffers horribly from NAFLD is the brain.
Even in its early stages, NAFLD impairs cognitive performance, lowers brain activity, shrinks the brain, and can lead to anxiety and depression.
The mechanisms behind these events are yet to be determined, but one theory points to hypoxia or low levels of oxygen. This not only damages brain cells directly but leads to the development of brain inflammation, which has its own set of memory-hampering results.
To test this theory, scientists from England, France and Switzerland conducted a novel study in mice, but before they carried it out, they tested the effects of two very different types of diets on the liver.
Low Fat Vs. High Fat Diets
The research team split the mice into two groups. They fed the first group a diet in which fat made up just ten percent of the calorie intake. They fed the other group a diet that was intended to resemble an unhealthy human diet abundant in processed foods and sugary drinks, where fat made up 55 percent of the calorie intake. Sadly, this mimics the Western diet that so many in our modern society are addicted to.
After 16 weeks all mice consuming higher levels of fat developed NAFLD—every single one! In addition, these mice became obese and had insulin resistance—a common condition in Americans who are overweight. These mice were also more anxious and showed signs of depression—also very common today.
But there was good news…
Mice consuming the healthy diet did not develop NAFLD, obesity and insulin resistance, and behaved normally. These findings didn’t come as a surprise to the research team as they backed up previous scientific findings and evidence—some of which has been reported here over the years.
Next, it was time for the researchers to test the effect these diets had on the brains of the mice.
Low Oxygen Increases Inflammation
When the research team analyzed the brains of these mice, they found the hypoxia theory was true and led to brain dysfunction. The mice with NAFLD that came about from their highly processed diet suffered from lower oxygen levels.
The researchers gave two reasons for this.
First, they found that NAFLD affected the number and thickness of the brain’s blood vessels, so less oxygen was delivered to the tissues. The second reason was that the brain was becoming inflamed, and this caused some classes of cells to gobble up more oxygen while others used less. By comparison, brains of the mice consuming the low-fat diet were completely healthy.
Lead author Dr. Anna Hadjihambi explained, saying, “It is very concerning to see the effect that fat accumulation in the liver can have on the brain, especially because it often starts off mild and can exist silently for many years without people knowing they have it.
“This research emphasizes that cutting down the amount of sugar and fat in our diets is not only important for tackling obesity, but also for protecting the liver to maintain brain health and minimize the risk of developing conditions like depression and dementia during aging, when our brain becomes even more fragile.”
Their study didn’t end there. They carried out further tests to see whether the damage caused to the liver from a diet high in fat and sugar could be blocked or even reversed.
A Potential Remedy
The scientists bred mice with lower levels of a whole-body protein known as monocarboxylate transporter 1 (MCT1) – a protein specialized in the transport of factors that can serve as an alternative energy source for cells.
This time when mice were fed the same high fat, sugar-laden diet as those in the initial experiment, they had no fat accumulation in the liver and exhibited no sign of brain dysfunction – they were protected from both ailments.
Luc Pellerin, senior author of the study published in Journal of Hepatology last August, said, “Identifying MCT1 as a key element in the development of both NAFLD and its associated brain dysfunction opens interesting perspectives. It highlights potential mechanisms at play within the liver-brain axis and points to a possible therapeutic target.”
That’s all good and well for the sake of science, but hey, I’ve got an idea: Why not avoid the high-fat, sugar-laden diet to begin with?
While we wait for science to come up with an anti-dote to the poor eating habits plaguing tables across America, let’s focus on how we should eat to protect our livers.
Stopping NAFLD Naturally
Diet and lifestyle is the number one best way to prevent and defeat NAFLD.
The first dietary step is to avoid ultra-fatty foods which are high in cholesterol and can lead to fat deposits that damage the liver. It’s also a good idea to avoid processed foods, refined sugar, and alcohol which can do the same. Instead, focus on a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and healthy oils such as olive oil and coconut oil. These will help you lose or maintain a healthy weight, normalize high blood sugar and improve insulin resistance to promote healthy liver function.
The second step is to exercise regularly. Regular cardiovascular exercise prevents the build-up of unhealthy fat on your liver for when you do choose to eat that burger and fries from the drive-thru.
Supplements Can Help
There are also supplements that can help protect and repair your liver. For example, numerous studies have shown that milk thistle and its key compound, silibinin, can lower levels of negative liver enzymes and improve liver health. In fact, milk thistle is perhaps the most widely used—and studied— supplement for liver disease. A study demonstrated that milk thistle does in fact speed up liver regeneration.
Licorice root is another liver saver. Licorice root contains an active compound called glycyrrhizic acid, which can help reduce inflammation in the liver and regenerate damaged liver cells.
Other powerful antioxidant, inflammation-fighting supplements such as green tea and turmeric have also proven effective in helping improve poor liver health.
Even though a healthy lifestyle is critical to prevent and treat NAFLD, those eating a nutritious diet and making smart lifestyle choices shouldn’t be complacent about the health of their liver. Get regular liver enzyme and liver function tests to ensure your liver is healthy.
- Hashida, Ryuki et al. “Aerobic vs. resistance exercise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: A systematic review.” Journal of Hepatology, January 2017
- Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015; 2015: 536564.
Published online 2015 Aug 4. doi: 10.1155/2015/536564