Did you know that type 2 diabetes and overweight can put you at an increased risk for certain types of liver disease? Research is starting to reveal more about this often-overlooked connection between type 2 diabetes and your liver. Learn more about the connection, getting screened for liver disease, and how to care for your liver.
All About Your Liver
Your liver is the largest internal organ in your body, and it’s responsible for many vital functions, including:
Filtering your blood to remove wastes like chemicals or toxins.
Breaking down medications and other substances.
Producing bile, which helps you digest fats into energy.
Helping your body’s immune system fight germs that could make you sick.
Your liver also plays a key role in balancing your blood sugar levels. When you eat, a hormone called insulin removes extra sugar from your bloodstream and stores it in your liver for future use. Between meals and overnight, your liver releases that sugar back into your bloodstream so your body has the energy it needs.
Types of Liver Disease
Viral hepatitis is a liver infection caused by certain viruses. Liver damage or liver cancer can be caused by heavy alcohol consumption.
Other types of liver disease can be caused by chronic conditions like obesity (especially weight around your belly), high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) happens when too much fat builds up in your liver. It’s normal for your liver to store some fat, but if more than 5% of your liver’s weight comes from fat, this can cause problems.
A more severe form of fatty liver disease is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This is when you have NAFLD and also have swelling, inflammation (an immune response to injury or illness), and liver damage. About 20% to 30% of people with NAFLD also develop NASH.
NAFLD and NASH can lead to more serious complications like liver cirrhosis, which is scarring and permanent damage to your liver. This damage could eventually lead to liver failure and the need for a liver transplant.
The Type 2 Diabetes and Liver Connection
Research on the connection between type 2 diabetes and liver disease is relatively new, but it’s becoming clear that each condition increases the risk for the other. When your blood sugar is too high over a long period of time, this causes damage to your internal organs, including your liver. Similarly, NAFLD and NASH increase the risk of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. A buildup of fat and damage in your liver can increase your blood sugar levels. NAFLD and type 2 diabetes also share many of the same risk factors, including overweight or obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Researchers are seeing increasing numbers of people with both type 2 diabetes and liver disease. In fact, up to 70% of people with type 2 diabetes also have NAFLD.
NAFLD and NASH usually don’t have any signs or symptoms and can develop over many years unnoticed. Some people may have loss of appetite, fatigue, yellowing of the skin and/or eyes, right-sided pain in the belly, or unexplained weight loss. But most people don’t notice any changes during the early stages of liver disease. Because of this, screening and early diagnosis are crucial, even if you don’t think anything is wrong. Be sure to ask your doctor about your liver health at your next visit.
Your doctor can screen you for NAFLD by testing your liver enzymes (a measure of liver function) with simple blood tests. The test results along with your age are used to calculate your risk for liver damage. Your risk score, known as the Fibrosis-4 (FIB-4) Index, means the following:
FIB-4 score less than 1.3: low risk
FIB-4 score of 1.3 to 2.67: medium risk
FIB-4 score higher than 2.67: high risk
Your FIB-4 result shows your risk of liver disease, and your doctor may also perform a liver biopsy to diagnose liver disease if needed. Imaging tests like ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show how much excess fat you have in your liver.
Diabetes experts are noticing that chronic liver disease is a growing health concern. Early diagnosis and lifestyle changes for NAFLD can help to prevent more severe forms of liver damage like cirrhosis.
Preventing and Managing Liver Disease
There are no medicines available yet that cure NAFLD or NASH. The good news is that many of the same lifestyle changes that help manage prediabetes and type 2 diabetes also help with liver diseases like NAFLD and NASH. With healthy lifestyle changes, you may be able to prevent, slow down, or even reverse the buildup of extra fat in your liver. For example:
Losing weight if you have overweight or obesity is a great place to start. Losing 5% to 10% of your current body weight can help reduce extra fat in your liver, improve your blood sugar, and take stress off all your internal organs.
Healthy eating, including balancing your carbohydrate intake and limiting sweets, is important for diabetes. It also matters for liver health since extra carbohydrates and sugars are stored in your liver. Limiting the amount of saturated fats in your diet helps protect your liver from fat buildup.
Being physically active helps improve the way your body uses blood sugar and helps reduce the amount of fat stored in your liver. Try to get at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, but every bit of activity counts, even if you only have a few minutes to spare.
Limiting alcohol can also reduce the stress on your liver and slow the development of liver damage. Limit alcohol as much as you can if you have liver disease or are at risk for it.
Making and sticking to healthy lifestyle changes may feel tough at first, but even reaching small goals can help you prevent, delay, or manage type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and other related chronic conditions. If you’re not sure where or how to start, check out 3 Steps to Building a Healthy Habit.