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How does being overweight affect my liver?

By: Ann Marie Coppen

Anne Marie Coppen

PhD, FNP, Nurse Practitioner

For a personal response to your health question, Ask Ann Marie at askannmarie@lindora.com. Selected questions will be featured in future columns.

Being overweight or obese impacts most of your organs. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is currently the most common liver disease in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 29 million Americans have NAFLD, and approximately 6 million individuals have Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH). Of concern is the fact that most individuals may not feel any symptoms or understand the potential danger and impact liver disease has.

This disease is called non-alcoholic, because the damage to the liver is not due to alcohol consumption, which may lead to the same end results.

There is a range of liver diseases. These include:

  • NAFLD: Fatty liver, also known as steatosis
  • NASH: Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, causing inflammation in the liver
  • Cirrhosis: irreversible scarring of the liver prompted by chronic inflammation

What is NAFLD and what causes this?

weightNAFLD is prompted by fat deposit in the liver. The essential cause is a result of insulin resistance (where the cells of the body become resistant to the hormone insulin). This then prompts the need for a higher amount of insulin to be effective in controlling blood sugar. Individuals with diabetes have a higher risk of developing NAFLD. Being overweight, obese, or having an enlarged abdominal circumference can also increase your risk for this disease. Fatty liver disease is usually reversible with weight loss.

Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) is a more serious condition that is an accumulation of fat that causes inflammation and scarring of the liver. The scarring of the liver can progress to destruction of liver cells, leading to the last stage of NAFLD, cirrhosis.

How do I find out if I have NAFLD?

Diagnosis of NAFLD is determined by blood tests for elevated liver enzymes (AST and/or ALT) and ultrasound to view the amount of fat in the liver. If diagnosed, management and treatment of NAFLD include:

  • Weight loss
  • Healthy diet consisting of lower fat and higher fiber
  • Exercise
  • Controlling blood sugar
  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Avoiding alcohol

How does being overweight or obese affect my kidneys?

weightAs with the liver, kidneys are also impacted by being overweight or obese. According to the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, individuals who are or have been obese are more likely to develop chronic kidney disease (CKD). Even being moderately overweight virtually doubles the risk of developing CKD, making dialysis or kidney transplantation more likely.

  • Obesity places more demand on the kidneys, making them work harder
  • As the individual becomes heavier, over filtration may occur wearing down the kidneys
  • Studies have found that the larger the patients waist circumference, the higher the risk of kidney disease

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), here is how the kidneys work and how they fail:

  • The kidneys are a pair of bean shaped organs approximately the size of a fist just below the rib cage.
  • The function of the kidney is to filter waste product and excess water out of the blood (urine).
  • The kidneys make sure there is not too much or too little water in the body.
  • Kidneys help in regulating blood pressure.
  • Kidneys help activate Vitamin D, helping calcium absorption.
  • Kidneys help the heart by maintaining balance with the electrolytes that aid in heart contraction.
  • Kidneys may fail to function abruptly (acute kidney failure).
  • Kidneys may fail to function gradually (chronic kidney failure).
  • End stage renal disease is total or near total kidney failure which requires kidney dialysis or transplant.

According to the NIDDK, the early stages may not show any signs or symptoms. However the first signs may include feeling tired, frequent headaches, and all over itchiness. In addition, they identify the following as possible symptoms of worsening kidney failure:

  • The need to urinate more or less frequently
  • Swelling and or numbing of the hands and feet
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Muscle cramping
  • Darkening skin

Things that you can do to improve the health of your kidneys:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Lose weight if you are overweight or obese
  • Get plenty of exercise
  • Avoid pain medications
  • Stop smoking
  • Cut back on alcohol consumption
  • Control levels (cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar)

If you are overweight and notice symptoms from any of the discussed liver or kidney diseases, be sure to consult with a doctor as soon as possible. Before conditions worsen, make a personal commitment to follow a healthy plan of action. If caught early, most of these conditions can be reversed. Be sure to be proactive; eat right, move more, and stress less.

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