Obesity can lead to liver disease

Symptoms are hard to spot

Yet another disease has been linked to obesity. Samuel Klein, director of the WUSM Center for Human Nutrition, reports fatty liver disease, usually associated with excess alcohol consumption, is on the rise among those who don’t drink too much. One common factor linked to the increase is obesity. Read more in the following Post-Dispatch article.

Fatty liver disease is on the rise

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, January 17, 2005)

By Kay Quinn

Heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, joint problems, infertility and even certain kinds of cancer are all problems that can arise from obesity. Now, doctors are saying those excess pounds can also put the liver under attack.

Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine, said an increasing body of evidence shows obesity can lead to the accumulation of fat inside liver cells. That in turn causes inflammation and scarring of the liver, the kind of damage usually associated with drinking too much alcohol. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is now so common that some researchers believe 25 percent of the population shows signs of this kind of liver damage.

Ninety percent of people undergoing gastric bypass operations – typically those with a body mass index of more than 40 – have the liver disease. About 2 percent of those patients will eventually need a liver transplant.

Yet the disease often goes undiagnosed, and the symptoms can be vague or nonexistent. They include fatigue and nonspecific abdominal pain. No one knows at what weight excess fat begins to damage the liver. Doctors think there’s no way to predict who will develop serious liver disease.

Klein calls it a major public health problem. It’s so alarming that the National Institutes of Health is devoting considerable resources to identify the mechanism that causes it.

Klein is conducting clinical studies to identify the causes of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and to determine whether three currently approved medications can restore the liver to its normal level of functioning. Subjects will take either Niaspan, a drug that blocks the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream; Fenofibrate, which affects enzymes in the liver that stimulate fat oxidation; or Pioglitazone, a drug that affects insulin sensitivity. Volunteers should have a body mass index between 30 and 45 and be willing to spend at least two nights in the lab. For more information, call 314-362-8452.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is preventable. When obese patients lose weight, their liver function typically returns to normal. In obese patients who have had gastric bypass surgery, Klein and his colleagues have found a dramatic improvement in liver function, including a beneficial effect on liver production of glucose and improvements in the organ’s ability to make very low-density lipoproteins, the so-called good cholesterol.

Kay Quinn is an anchor and reporter at KSDK (Channel 5).

Copyright 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.