How old is your liver? If you responded with the number I could get from looking at your driver's license, you might be wrong. At least, this could be the case if you consider your "epigenetic age" rather than your chronological age.
Your epigenetic age is a measure of how quickly you're aging. Steve Horvath, a professor of human genetics and biostatistics at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health, developed a way to measure the age of your liver using what he calls an "epigenetic clock." This clock shows how your liver tends to age faster than other parts of the body. This is particularly true if you're obese. In fact, if you're obese, your liver could be significantly older than the rest of you. For every 10 units you go up on the BMI scale, your liver's epigenetic age goes up by 3.3 years.
The epigenetic clock is based on DNA methylation. Without getting too scientific, DNA methylation is a crucial part of normal cell function. According to Horvath, it is a process that allows cells to "remember who they are and where they have been." It's also important for regulating how your genes express themselves. For instance, it suppresses disease-related genes and encourages health-related genes. However, when DNA methylation becomes abnormal, it plays a critical role in the development of nearly every type of cancer. So measuring this process is a great way to discover potential health problems before they happen.
In fact, measuring the impact obesity has on the liver could help us predict disease before it happens. We already knew that obesity takes a toll on your health. But it doesn't seem to affect the aging of the rest of your body the same way it does your liver. So why the liver? The answer isn't that obesity targets the liver in particular. It's that the same mechanism is causing both obesity and liver degeneration. If you're obese, there's likely something in your diet that is causing you to be that way — and it's also killing your liver.
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This shared enemy is fructose, a common form of sugar that you'll likely recognize from the term high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is in a wide variety of foods, and I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that sugar causes weight gain. But what you probably don't know is that unlike glucose, which practically every cell in your body can use, only your liver can break down fructose. And if you consume high levels of fructose, you're putting a tremendous strain on your liver. In fact, fructose can be just as toxic to your liver as alcohol.
Contributing to the obesity/liver-aging link is the fact that the liver converts fructose directly into fat rather than into cellular energy. This fat then contributes to insulin resistance, increases fat levels in the bloodstream, and raises your risk of developing fatty liver disease. Plus, it reacts with certain proteins to create superoxide free radicals that cause inflammation in the liver.
Fructose consumption creates a vicious cycle because it can cause leptin resistance and block the burning of fat. Leptin resistance, which is typically a prerequisite for obesity, involves an absence of the hormonal signals that tell you you're full. Without these caution lights, you're likely to just keep eating. You can see how problematic this is. The more fructose you consume, the more fat you create, but the less you burn. The more fructose you consume, the less you need to eat because you have significant energy stores, but the more you want to eat.
The solution, of course, is to reduce your fructose consumption. Try to eat no more than 15 to 25 grams per day. Keep in mind that there is some fructose in fruit. While this fructose is generally less damaging because it's packaged with fiber and antioxidants, it still needs to count toward your fructose total. If you're obese, try to choose low-fructose fruits, such as grapefruit, kiwifruit, and berries. And eat fruits with a higher fructose content, such as pears, red apples, and plums, more sparingly.
Your liver does a lot for you. If you've been making it work overtime for years by consuming excess fructose, it's likely aged faster than the rest of you. Give it some comfort in its old age by trading fructose in for Advanced Liver Support
. It's full of nutrients that help support the liver's natural functions, such as detoxifying the body.
Yours for better health,
Frank Shallenberger, MD