The Forgotten Weight Loss Ally

The Forgotten Weight Loss Ally

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, PPSC

The Forgotten Weight Loss Ally

In our society's obsessive and endless search for weight loss solutions (versus seeking to prevent weight gain in the first place, which is silly), we look to many different avenues. Whether it be the optimal fat-burning workout, the Holy Grail supplements, or even cosmetic surgery, there are 101 ways people attempt to lose unwanted pounds. And oftentimes, these well-intentioned but misguided efforts fail to yield results and end in frustration and confusion.

Have you seemingly tried everything, "done it the right way", and are still struggling to lose weight? Then it may be time to look toward a frequently overlooked ally in the Battle of the Bulge, your liver.

Among the hundreds of functions the liver serves in the body, it plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy weight via two primary pathways: dietary fat metabolism and blood sugar management. We're going to take a look at both pathways to lay out just how your body's largest solid organ factors into weight control, then we'll provide guidance on how you can support your liver in its noble efforts.

The Liver and Fat Metabolism

The liver plays a direct role in the body's ability to digest and process fats consumed via the diet, primarily via the production of bile. Bile is a yellowish-brown liquid that is made up of cholesterol, phospholipids, electrolytes, and water. After production in the liver, bile flows to the gallbladder, where it is concentrated via the removal of the mineral and water components. When fats are ingested and reach the small intestine, a signal is sent to the gallbladder to release bile, which aids in the efficient digestion and absorption of fats. However, if the liver and gallbladder are not functioning as they should, there is an excess of fats that enter the bloodstream and eventually reenter the liver, where they are repackaged and eventually stored as excess body fat.

The other key role the liver plays in fat metabolism is in the synthesis of HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Yes, your good friend the liver is responsible for the production of both the "good" and "bad" cholesterol. Both serve a biological purpose from an evolutionary standpoint (or they wouldn't exist) but modern lifestyles, far removed from our ancestral lifestyles, have led to LDL cholesterol becoming an issue for many people.

HDL cholesterol is considered beneficial because after it is produced in the liver, it is sent out into the bloodstream. There it essentially "scavenges" other types of cholesterol and fat and transports them back to the liver to be eliminated through stool. LDL on the other hand, does just the opposite and transports fats from the liver and circulates them into the bloodstream.

For our primitive ancestors this served a benefit, however in modern western society many individuals already have more than enough fats in the blood, so increasing that amount may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, this excess fat in the bloodstream cycles back to an already overburdened liver, which will then be more likely to store the excess lipids within fat tissue.

The Liver and Blood Sugar Management

We discussed the liver's role in the digestion and processing of fats, now let's discuss liver function and carbohydrates. When carbs are consumed, they are broken down in the G.I. tract into monosaccharides, the simplest form of carbohydrate. Then, just as fats pass from the small intestine into the liver (through what's known as the hepatic portal vein), monosaccharides enter the liver and are converted into glucose.

The liver then regulates whether this glucose is reintroduced into the bloodstream, or if blood glucose levels are adequate, it remains in the liver and is stored as a more complex carbohydrate chain called glycogen.  When we consume large amounts of carbohydrates and blood glucose levels spike, the pancreas stimulates the release of insulin, a hormone whose job is to shuttle glucose out of the blood and into muscle tissue, fat tissue, or back into the liver to be stored as glycogen.

Now, in the case of a poorly functioning or damaged liver, this process can be disrupted. The liver may struggle to maintain the regulation of glycogen, and excess glucose ends up spilling into the bloodstream, stimulating insulin release. If this is happening on a chronic basis and insulin is constantly being released by the pancreas, the cells of the body become "insulin resistant". Glucose begins to back up in the bloodstream and the liver becomes overburdened, already saturated with stored glycogen. If the liver's glycogen stores are full, it will be forced to convert the excess into fatty acids (triglycerides) which are then stored as body fat. This vicious cycle can continue to the point of not only excess body fat, but a condition known as steatosis or fatty liver disease.

That Was A Lot, What Should I DO Though?

Ok, science and biology. Fun. What does it all mean for me?

Ensuring your liver is functioning properly will be your silent but powerful ally in terms of fat loss. What the previous two sections boil down to is this: What the liver cannot either eliminate or put to use will be converted to and stored as body fat. So, supporting its optimal function while simultaneously not overloading it with junk will only aid weight loss efforts.

Tips for liver care include:

-Moderating consumption of high fat and high sugar/simple carbohydrate foods

-Decreasing alcohol consumption

-Decreasing or closely monitoring consumption of certain medications

-Supplements (N-Acetyl Cysteine, milk thistle, dandelion root, TUDCA)