We are learning more all the time about how the systems in the body work together. The relationship between non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and heart disease in women is just one more example of how the digestive system affects our entire body. This provides more evidence to the claim that taking care of the digestive system can help improve our overall health.
NAFLD and Heart Disease in Women
A study at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, looked at the relationship between NAFLD and heart disease in women. Without the NAFLD component, women are less likely to get heart disease than men, which makes being female a “protective effect” from cardiovascular disease in women. Women are also less likely to experience cardiovascular events like chest pain, heart attack, sudden heart failure, and stroke. However, the study showed that when NAFLD was present in women, the protective effect disappeared, making them just as likely as men to get heart disease. Not only that, but their risk of other cardiovascular issues increased to greater than men, including hypertension, diabetes, and higher BMI. These effects also showed up at an earlier age—by almost ten years—than women without NAFLD.
It is thought that hormones play a large role in the increased risk of heart disease in women with NAFLD. The protective effect of being female is because the presence of estrogen tends to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, while testosterone is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disorders including heart disease. Women with NAFLD produce more testosterone, which puts them at higher risk of heart disease until they reach menopause when estrogen levels naturally decline and the risk naturally goes up.
Assessing The Risk
NAFLD is a common disorder, affecting twenty-five percent of Americans, and people with NAFLD more often die from heart disease than from liver disease. Because of the close tie between NAFLD and heart disease, it makes sense for women to understand the risk factors for NAFLD and, in turn, for heart disease. Healthcare providers consider obesity to be one of the greatest risk factors for fatty liver. This thinking has to do with the fact that both obesity and fatty liver disease have increased steadily over the last decade in the U.S., especially in middle-aged adults. High LDL or “bad” cholesterol or triglycerides means there is higher fat content in the bloodstream, which can also lead to a fatty liver. People with diabetes or prediabetes and people with high blood pressure are at a higher risk of NAFLD. Unbalanced insulin levels and stress can also contribute to NAFLD.
Most of these risk factors already put women at a higher risk of heart disease even without the additional complication of NAFLD. Smoking, unhealthy diet, and inactivity also increase a woman’s risk of cardiovascular complications on their own. Some risk factors that aren’t within your control but are still important to note are family history of heart disease or preeclampsia during pregnancy and being age fifty-five or older.
Reducing The Risk
It is possible to reverse a non-alcoholic fatty liver, which will decrease your overall risk of cardiovascular disease. Many of the risks can be decreased through the same methods. A healthy diet with limited carbohydrates, lots of fiber, and very little trans fats and sugars will help with high cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and obesity. Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol consumption will also help keep the liver healthy and working efficiently. Adding regular exercise to your day will keep your heart pumping, help you lose weight, and increase the overall function of all your systems, including the digestive tract. Basically, anything you do to improve digestive function will also help keep your liver healthy and benefit your heart.
If you identify with any of the risk factors and want to know more about your liver health and how it relates to your heart, GI Associates can help. We will work with you to review your family history, evaluate any symptoms present, and discuss any risks or concerns you may have. We have three locations to make it easy for you to make an appointment with us today.