A growing issue that impacts everyone
Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the increasing prevalence of weight gain, diabetes, autism, cancers, skin and allergic conditions, mood disorders, hormone imbalance, and autoimmune conditions? And what about undiagnosed symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, and unexplained joint pain and muscle aches? The prevalence of medically unexplainable symptoms is so high, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has an Undiagnosed Diseases Network.
So far, it’s been quite a mystery what is going on, and theories abound. Is it the presence of genetically modified foods and pesticides in our food? Exposure to off-gassing in our homes and from the products we bring into them? Heavy metals in the water supply? Our fast-paced lifestyle? Electromagnetic fields? People just paying more attention and seeking more medical care?
It could be any of these things or all of them, but nobody has a perfect answer. However, there is a lot of emerging evidence that many of our health problems could be related to inadequate liver function. But why the skyrocketing prevalence of liver dysfunction?
Let’s begin with taking a quick look at what our livers do for us. It has been estimated that the liver has at least 500 vital functions. Wow! Just to scratch the surface, here’s a short but highly relevant list, with a little explanation so it’s easier to see the connection between liver dysfunction and problems elsewhere in the body:
- Detoxification and filtering (the liver protects us from microorganisms, buildup of medications and drugs, and all the toxins we’re exposed to)
- Hormone synthesis and regulation (blood pressure control, converts thyroid hormone to active form)
- Bile production (needed for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients)
- Vitamin and mineral storage and regulation (all needed for cells to function)
- Immunologic function (immune cells reside in the liver, and the liver handles potential pathogens from the gastrointestinal tract)
- Metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates (breaks down, builds, stores, and makes available to cells for energy)
- Cholesterol production and management (cholesterol is not evil but is an important component in the cell walls of all of our cells)
- Process hemoglobin (cell turnover is always happening and “waste” products have to be recycled)
- Albumin production (the main protein in our blood)
Now consider the prevalence of liver abnormalities in people who often do not have symptoms attributable to the liver or who do not usually have a diagnosis of active or severe liver disease:
- 90% of adults have persistent epstein barr virus (EBV), as demonstrated by positive serology (blood testing). EBV can cause both acute and chronic liver disease. Symptoms can be significant and life-threatening (rare) or subtle (most common).
- About 25% of Americans have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Prevalence of this condition is increasing, especially in Western nations. It is the most common form of diagnosed chronic liver disease. It is usually asymptomatic or may cause fatigue, and it is associated with other metabolic diseases like diabetes and lipid disorders.
And finally, consider the known associations between liver disease and many other chronic conditions that we normally don’t associate with the liver.
- There is an increasing prevalence of fatty liver disease in nations who adopt a Western lifestyle. A study done in a Chinese community revealed this increase and also a strong association between fatty liver and weight gain. It is generally accepted that weight gain is associated with many other disease processes like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, lipid disorders, cardiovascular disease, and many types of cancers.
- Thyroid diseases of all kinds are associated with liver abnormalities.
- Many types of autoimmune diseases are associated with liver abnormalities.
- People who suffer with chronic fatigue syndrome often have underlying liver abnormalities, including EBV, mentioned above.
- Many mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are associated with liver abnormalities.
- Mitochondrial dysfunction, an underlying factor in the progression of cancer and autism, is strongly associated with liver and gastrointestinal dysfunction. This is the basis for much of the latest buzz about gut health, a topic all areas of medicine are exploring and finding ways to address. Since the liver is part of the gastrointestinal system, and is the first line of filtration and detoxification after food and non-food items are absorbed, it makes sense that poor gut health would affect the liver.
As you can see, our livers are extremely important for optimal health, and there is a strong association between inadequate gut and liver function and many other symptoms and disease processes. When considering the many things the liver does for us, it makes sense that if it isn’t in top shape, many other organs and systems in our body will fail to operate properly.
Yet, inadequate liver function often goes unnoticed. Most people don’t have symptoms that directly point to the liver, so they never think the liver might be the underlying cause of their symptoms. Subtle liver disease can be hard to recognize.
Even if liver enzymes are measured, usually a first step in diagnosis, analysis is complicated and not specific enough to diagnose more subtle liver dysfunction. Furthermore, many people with NAFLD or more subtle dysfunction may have normal enzymes and no symptoms, so their liver issues may go undetected.
When NAFLD is diagnosed or underlying liver dysfunction is suspected, conventional treatment consists of weight loss and strict avoidance of alcohol.
However, emerging data reveals many other potential ways to support liver health, and this up-to-date research is being successfully used in the fields of integrative and functional medicine. Many patients are finding relief from their generalized symptoms and improvement in their medical conditions that may be related to poor or sluggish liver function. Treatment is aimed at easing burdens on the liver and adding foods and natural therapies that will enhance liver function.
Patients are assisted with identifying and avoiding all potential toxins and burdens on the liver - not just alcohol but also stress, medications, illnesses, molds, household products, chemicals in drinking water, and processed foods, to name a few. Clients are supported through the process of identifying potential harms and removing them.
Natural therapies that support the liver and its related metabolic processes are numerous, but the most heavily researched and supported include spirulina, barley grass juice powder, B and C vitamins, and select plant foods that aid the body in gut health and liver function at the cellular level.
Diagnosis of liver dysfunction and its related disease entities and symptoms can be complicated. Furthermore, there is no pill for liver problems. Treatment is aimed at repairing the root causes of the problem and optimizing liver function.
If you are suffering from any of the multiple disease processes or undiagnosed symptoms that could be related to poor liver function, consider making an appointment with a functional medicine physician or integrative physician. A qualified practitioner can help you find the root cause of your symptoms and suggest appropriate therapies for you.
Jill Butryn, MD