Is There a Connection Between Weight Gain and Poor Liver Function?
Apr 23rd, 2012 | By Sarah | Category: Health | Print This Article
Your liver is the large, irregularly shaped organ that sits in the top right portion your abdominal cavity directly above your stomach. It plays a central role in over 500 different functions that support your daily health and well being, including the processing of the fats in your diet and the production of LDL and HDL cholesterol. Once it occurs, poor function in your liver will typically lead to weight loss, not weight gain. However, weight gain can play a significant role in the onset of poor liver function and its accompanying health problems.
Normal Liver Function
Your liver plays a part in processing dietary fat by producing a substance called bile, which is stored in your gallbladder and enters your bloodstream during food digestion, where it breaks fat down into molecules that are small enough to pass through the lining of your intestinal wall. Once you digest this fat, your liver plays an additional role in its processing by creating fat-containing cholesterol and another fat called triglyceride, then passing these substances into your bloodstream.
Among its may other responsibilities, your liver also:
- Helps your body process medications and other drugs
- Aids in elimination of medication and drug-related toxins
- Assists in storing the excess sugars in your diet
- Produces substances that help your body resist infection
- Facilitates control of normal clotting of your blood
- Helps control your bloodstream’s supply of the protein sub-units called amino acids
The Onset of a Fatty Liver
Roughly 10 to 20 percent of Americans have a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD. As the name implies, this condition appears in people who don’t drink much, and involves the abnormal buildup of fat inside the liver’s cells. Having fat within your liver is not dangerous in and of itself, and in the vast majority of cases, people with NAFLD have no liver damage or resulting problems with liver function. However, a fatty liver can still be a direct or indirect threat to your health.
For instance, fat accumulation in your liver can decrease your body’s normal responses to a substance called insulin, which is produced in your pancreas and helps control the amount of glucose or sugar in your bloodstream. In turn, resistance to insulin’s effects can eventually trigger the onset of type II diabetes. Unprocessed fat in your liver can also damage your health by entering your bloodstream and increasing your chances of developing serious cardiovascular problems. In addition, most people who develop NAFLD are obese or significantly overweight and have to deal with the extra health complications associated with carrying high levels of excess body fat.
What’s more, roughly 2 to 5 percent of American adults have a more serious form of NAFLD, called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. Over a period of years or decades, NASH can lead to a gradual scarring in your liver tissues known as fibrosis. In turn, fibrosis, can lead to a more serious problem called cirrhosis, which is characterized by additional scarring, hardening of your liver tissues, intestinal bleeding, loss of muscle tissue, abnormal retention of body fluids and a loss of normal liver function. While doctors don’t know precisely what causes NASH, it most frequently occurs in obese people, overweight people, and people who are in their 40s or older. As many as 20 percent of obese American adults have some form of NASH.
The Effects of Poor Liver Function
One of the classic symptoms of poor liver function is a drop in your normal appetite that leads to weight loss. Other problems associated with the disorder include persistent low energy or fatigue, urine with an abnormally dark color, feces with an unusually pale color, feces with a color similar to that of tar or blood, persistently itchy skin, abdominal bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, and the yellowing of your skin and eye whites known as jaundice. In addition to NASH, conditions that can lead to poor liver function and the onset of weight loss and other symptoms include alcohol-related fatty liver disease or cirrhosis, alcohol-related hepatitis, hepatitis not related to alcohol consumption, an enlarged liver, acute or chronic liver failure, a liver cyst, liver cancer, and two conditions called Gilbert’s syndrome and Wilson’s disease.
In addition to obesity, factors that can contribute to the onset of liver-related disorders include alcoholism, getting a tattoo or body piercing, diabetes, having high triglyceride levels in your bloodstream, having unprotected sex, direct contact with another person’s body fluids or blood, using a needle already used by another person, handling chemicals or other toxic substances, and using medications, supplements or herbs that damage your liver.
Your doctor can assess your liver function by ordering a blood test called a liver panel. Among other things, this test measures your blood levels of bile pigment called bilirubin, your blood levels of a protein called albumin, and your blood levels of three specialized proteins (enzymes) called ALT, ALP, and AST. If you have poor liver function, your bilirubin and liver enzyme levels can increase or remain the same; your albumin levels can decrease or remain the same.
Potential Causes of Weight Gain
Most people gain weight when they consume more calories than they work off during their daily activities and exercise routines. If you’ve reached middle age, normal reductions in your body’s energy usage—or metabolism—can increase your chances for gaining weight by decreasing the number of calories you burn on any given day. In addition to consuming too many overall calories, you can increase your weight by eating a diet that contains too many carbohydrates or by regularly drinking significant amounts of alcohol.
Some people gain weight as a result of problems or alterations in their endocrine system, which controls the output of various important hormones. Endocrine-related diseases that can lead to weight gain include abnormally low function in your thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), a reproductive disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and an adrenal gland disorder called Cushing syndrome or Cushing’s syndrome. Weight gain can also occur in association with the normal hormonal shifts that accompany menopause.
Medications known to increase your chances for unwanted weight gain include anti-inflammatory corticosteroids, certain antidepressants, lithium, phenothiazines, cyproheptadine and tranquilizers. You can also potentially gain weight if you stop smoking, have anxiety or depression, or have a medical condition—such as preeclampsia, kidney failure, or heart failure—that causes you to retain fluid in your body tissues. In addition, you can also experience temporary weight gain stemming from the fluid retention associated with monthly menstruation. If you gain lots of weight over a very short period of time, you may have fluid retention related to some sort of serious medical issue. In some cases, the weight gain associated with quitting smoking can’t be entirely accounted for by an increased calorie intake.
So, what can we take away from all of this? For one thing, excessive body weight can play a significant role in the onset of poor liver function. In addition, this unwanted weight can lead to a host of other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. Still, not everyone with poor liver function is obese, and not all people who are obese have poor liver function. If you have NASH, you can potentially control the condition and reduce your risks for its most serious complications by getting significant amounts of regular exercise, eating a balanced diet that supports your general health and well-being, reviewing your medication usage with your doctor, and reducing your alcohol intake or avoiding alcohol altogether.
Interestingly enough, some of these same basic steps can help you avoid gaining unwanted pounds, or help you lose any unwanted weight you’ve accumulated over the years. If you experience weight gain that doesn’t appear to stem from such common sources as overeating, aging, menopause, excessive carbohydrate consumption, excessive alcohol consumption or lack of physical activity, consult your doctor for advice. He or she can help uncover the source of your problems, in addition to suggesting appropriate courses of action to improve your health and/or avoid any long-term health risks.
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