Blood sugar management and the liver go hand-in-hand. Insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease get a lot of attention, but it’s time to put the liver into the center of the conversation. The liver plays a central role in blood sugar management. It also suffers when blood sugar gets too high.
How the liver handles blood sugar also impacts weight gain, obesity, hormone imbalance and more. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to support your liver manage your blood sugar. Let’s take a closer look.
What the Liver Does to Manage Sugar
There are two types of sugar: glucose and fructose. Every cell in your body can use glucose. Fructose can only be broken down by the liver.
When you eat a meal, your glucose levels rise. Cells throughout the body quickly gobble up the glucose you need, while the rest goes to the liver. There the liver turns it into glycogen to use later.
When you aren’t eating and insulin levels drop, the liver converts glycogen back into glucose and sends it out to fuel your cells power needs. If necessary, the liver can produce sugar from fats and amino acids when glycogen runs low or convert fat into another form of fuel called ketones.
The blood sugar problem enters the picture when the liver can’t store anymore glycogen. At this point, it converts sugar into fats like triglycerides. A lot of this fat gets moved to fat cells around the body, especially in the waist. Some fat remains in the liver.
If sugar consumption continues to exceed use, weight gain occurs. The liver also can develop too much fat, a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. How much is too much liver fat? When more than 5%-10% of the liver’s weight is fat, it’s considered a fatty liver. Currently nearly 1 in 3 adults in the US suffers from the fatty liver disease.[i]
Excess liver fat also causes the liver to stop responding to insulin. This increases insulin levels throughout the body in an effort to force cells to take up the sugar from the blood. Obesity and metabolic imbalances can result in fatty liver disease developing into an inflamed liver.
One way to help your liver is to eliminate some types of fructose from your diet.
How Fructose Affects the Liver
As noted, only the liver can process fructose. You can get this sugar from several sources: added sugars in foods, sucrose (table sugar) and fruit. The fructose in fruit isn’t generally a problem as fruits have low energy densities and the fructose digests slowly. Some people such as diabetics or carb-sensitive individuals may want to avoid fruit, but generally-speaking the fructose in fruit isn’t a problem. The same cannot be said for added sugars and sucrose.
Most added sugars contain fructose, such as corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Sucrose itself contains one molecule of glucose and one of fructose. Being refined to add sweetness, they get breakdown fast and get absorbed quickly. Eating these sugars floods the body with a sugar only the liver can break down.
The liver converts fructose into three separate units – glucose, lactose and glycogen. If the body has already had enough glucose and glycogen, the fructose gets converted directly to fat! This fat goes to the waist and the liver, adding to liver fat.
In addition to the extra fat, this process forces the liver to spend energy on managing sugar. This reduces the available energy and resources for other vital aspects of your metabolism. It’s also less energy you have, making you feel tired and fatigued.
How to Care for Your Liver
The simplest way to care for your liver is to eliminate foods with added sugars. Eating a diet full of natural foods, rather than refined, processed foods can go a long way to reducing the burden of sugar on your liver. And just like you can lose excess fat around the waist line, you can help your liver burn fat by reducing your sugar load.
Another effective way to reduce liver fat and support your liver is exercise. Researchers report regular moderate to high-intensity interval training decreases liver fat.[ii] Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to go out and get a gym membership to get see these benefits. A good brisk walk can constitute moderate exercise!
Other ways to support your health include eating foods that help metabolism and the liver. Pu’er tea and green tea, for example, support the liver by supporting metabolism. Cruciferous veggies, nuts, fatty fish and even coffee have been shown to help!
Finally, there’s also supplements like milk thistle which research shows protects liver cells.
Fortunately, the liver is a dynamic organ. Aside from its role in hundreds of metabolic processes, it’s also the only organ that can re-grow itself. Give it a little extra attention and it will be your most valuable partner in managing and controlling blood sugar!
[i] Le MH, Devaki P, Ha NB, et al. Prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and risk factors for advanced fibrosis and mortality in the United States. Yu M-L, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173499.
[ii] Winn NC1, et al. Energy-matched moderate and high intensity exercise training improves nonalcoholic fatty liver disease risk independent of changes in body mass or abdominal adiposity – A randomized trial. Metabolism. 2018 Jan;78:128-140. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2017.08.012. Epub 2017 Sep 20.