18M Filipinos have fatty liver disease—are you one of them?

November 27, 2022

MakatiMed says that positive adjustments in your lifestyle can help make all the difference 

Our liver is one of the most hard-working organs of the body. It produces bile that aids in digestion, converts food nutrients into energy, makes proteins our body needs, stores iron, helps blood clot, and flushes out bacteria and toxins from our system. In addition, our multi-tasking liver is very resilient. Did you know that it’s one of the few organs capable of regeneration? Even if up to 60 percent of the liver is damaged, a normal liver can repair itself. 

And yet, our liver has its limits too. This explains why an estimated 18 million Filipinos are either suffering from or are at risk of fatty liver disease. Defined as the buildup of excess fat in the liver (or when fat makes up more than 5% of your liver’s weight), fatty liver disease, when unresolved, can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and liver cancer. The progressive form of fatty liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH is the leading cause of liver transplantation worldwide. While liver transplantation is possible, it is costly, and will set you back by millions of pesos.

How did fatty liver disease reach such silent epidemic proportions in the Philippines? Unhealthy diets, a sedentary lifestyle and the rising number of people with diabetes and obesity are mostly responsible, says Madalinee Eternity D. Labio, MD, a Hepatologist and Head of the Liver Unit, Makati Medical Center (MakatiMed). “Having excess body weight and diabetes puts you at high risk for developing fatty liver disease,” she points out. “Although fatty liver can also result from excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages and certain medications, more Filipinos are being diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) owing to a diet rich in fat and sugar; a sedentary lifestyle; and the increasing incidence of diabetes among Filipinos.”

NAFLD is a silent condition with symptoms showing up only when the disease is far advanced making early diagnosis challenging. “By then, a patient shows signs of liver failure - such as jaundice or yellowing of the eyes and skin, lethargy and mental confusion; fluid build-up in the abdomen called ascites and vomiting of blood,” Dr. Labio shares. “These symptoms are red flags that signal advanced liver disease or liver cirrhosis due to complications brought about by fatty liver disease.” 

Doctors diagnose NAFLD and its progressive form NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis) through an ultrasound of the liver, a blood test revealing abnormal liver enzymes (ALT and AST), a special imaging test called transient elastography (FibroscanTM); or a liver biopsy. Because there are no medications to treat fatty liver disease, keeping your liver healthy through diet and exercise, maintaining a normal weight, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, are the best ways to prevent fatty liver from progressing to liver cirrhosis. 

“Making positive lifestyle changes improves not only your liver but your overall health,” Dr. Labio points out. “If you have diabetes, high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood), and have excess body weight, see your doctor regularly and have yourself checked if you have fatty liver.” 

Adopt a healthy lifestyle and your liver will do what it normally does. “If diagnosed early enough, it is possible to decrease the fat in your liver, resolve liver inflammation and even reverse liver damage,” Dr. Labio said. “Staying healthy and having your liver checked regularly prevents this silent condition from getting worse.”

For more information, please contact MakatiMed On-Call at +632.88888 999, email mmc@makatimed.net.ph, or visit www.makatimed.net.ph. Follow @IamMakatiMed on Facebook and Twitter.