Perhaps the warning on consuming alcohol in excess can damage the liver is not new. Certainly, that sugar, like alcohol, is bad for the liver will come as a surprise.
There’s no denying that freshly baked cookies, a slice of cake or an ice cream cone are enjoyable. A chilled bottle of carbonated soft drink and a bowl of popcorn, in fact, make a movie more enjoyable.
But it is also true that they are loaded with sugar. Eating too much sugar is not just bad for teeth; it can contribute to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and metabolic disorder in the liver.
Humans need glucose to survive, but the excessive amount of sugar found in everyday foods like processed snack foods, canned food, and soft drinks can do almost as much harm to the liver as alcohol.
“Sugar could also be toxic to the liver when it is in excess and there is a disarrangement of its normal physiology in the body, which is a diseased condition,” said Professor Abiodun Otegbayo, a consultant gastroenterologist at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.
The liver is one vital organ that converts sugar in the body to glycogen, a fat. Glucose is the smallest energy unit that the body consumes. The glycogen is the body’s energy reserve and it is stored in the liver and other organs like the muscle.
Now, if sugar is in excess and the liver is functioning well, it will be converted. Although excess blood sugar may not harm the liver of a healthy individual, Professor Otegbayo says it is a problem in the presence of a diseased liver.
“If sugar is in excess and the liver is functioning well, it will be converted. It cannot harm the liver as it were. But when there is a liver disease, the organ will no longer be able to perform its function of converting glucose to glycogen (fat) and storing it as a reserve.
“It is not that sugar primarily damages the liver, but it could have a collateral damage when there is a diseased condition. So, just as you could have diabetes due to excess sugar in the blood, it could also tell on your liver over time,” he declared.
Nonetheless, Professor Otegbayo stated that alcohol does more havoc on the liver than excess sugar because of its other by-products like the aldehyde when broken down in the body.
He adds: “Alcohol is a toxic substance on its own. Some alcohols like spirits are so bad that if you light a fire on it, it will burn like petrol.
“Glucose does not have that physical damage ability. You can take kilogrammes of glucose and your stomach lining and intestine will remain the same. But alcohol will erode them; inducing ulcer and so many other problems like gastritis in the stomach.”
He warned that as people pass the age of 40 years, moderation in intake of food, especially sweet foods and drinks and fatty meals is important in maintaining a healthy liver.
“As we get older, 40 and above, the system starts to slow down, so there is more glucose available for the liver to convert to fat and that is why it starts depositing in the tummy in men and on the hips and tummy in women. That is why fat is the major culprit in that instance,” he declared.
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) refers to liver damage caused by excess alcohol intake. There are several stages of severity and a range of associated symptoms.
Disturbingly, ARLD does not usually give symptoms until the liver has been severely damaged. Its symptoms can include feeling sick, weight loss, loss of appetite, the eyes and skin turning yellow, swelling in the ankles and tummy and vomiting blood.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the term for a range of conditions caused by a build-up of fat (glycogen) in the liver. It is common in people who are overweight or obese. Unfortunately, it is a silent disease because symptoms don’t start appearing until it’s almost too late.
Although it is not immediately dangerous, the condition can lead to liver cirrhosis, scarring of the liver caused by continuous, long-term liver damage. Scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in the liver and prevents the liver from working properly.
The damage caused by cirrhosis cannot be reversed and can eventually become so extensive that the liver stops functioning, what is medically called liver failure.
An article published in 2010 in The New England Journal of Medicine indicated that people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are more likely than those without it to have build-ups of cholesterol-filled plaque in their arteries, the blood vessels that supply the heart.
They are also more likely to develop cardiovascular disease or die from it. In fact, people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are far more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than liver disease.
A 2012 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate 1,000 extra calories of sugary foods for three weeks saw just a two per cent increase in body weight, but a 27 per cent increase in liver fat.
For years, experts have argued that the impact that sugar can have on health is so great that it should be regulated in a similar manner to alcohol.
Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, argue that sugar is both toxic and addictive. They argue that it’s a misnomer to consider sugar just “empty calories” given a growing body of scientific evidence showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases.
Another 2008 study published in the “Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews” journal also noted that when given unlimited access to sugar, rats exhibited four of the signs of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and a “gateway” to craving hard substances like alcohol.
So, maintaining a healthy body weight, going for a regular diabetes check and avoiding added sugars in processed foods such as soft drinks, fruit juices, baked goods, cereals and sweets and limiting alcohol consumption are important steps towards reducing the risk of fatty liver.