Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is milder form of NASH, in which the liver becomes enlarged and accumulates fat. Ready for a shocker? The prevalence of NAFLD is thought to be between 20 and 30 percent in the Western world, and rising. It's typically associated with insulin resistance and often with the metabolic syndrome. This has lead some researchers to believe it's caused by insulin resistance. It's a chicken and egg question, but I believe it's the other way around if anything.

There are certain animal models of human disease that are so informative I keep coming back to them again and again. One of my favorites is the LIRKO mouse, or liver-specific insulin receptor knockout mouse. The LIRKO mouse is missing its insulin receptor in the liver only, so it is a model of severe insulin resistance of the liver. It accumulates a small amount of fat in its liver in old age, but nothing that resembles NAFLD. So liver insulin resistance doesn't lead to NAFLD or NASH, at least in this model.

What else happens to the LIRKO mouse? It develops severe whole-body insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, high fasting blood glucose and hyperinsulinemia (chronically elevated insulin). So insulin resistance in the liver is sufficient to cause whole-body insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia and certain other hallmarks of the metabolic syndrome, while liver and whole-body insulin resistance are not sufficient to cause NAFLD or NASH. This is consistent with the fact that nearly everyone with NAFLD is insulin resistant, while many who are insulin resistant do not have NAFLD.

In all fairness, there are reasons why NAFLD is believed to be caused by insulin resistance. For example, insulin-sensitizing drugs improve NAFLD. However, that doesn't mean the initial metabolic 'hit' wasn't in the liver. One could imagine a scenario in which liver insulin resistance leads to insulin resistance in other tissues, which creates a positive feedback that aggravates NAFLD. Or perhaps NAFLD requires two 'hits', one to peripheral insulin sensitivity and another directly to the liver.

In any case, I feel that the most plausible mechanism for NAFLD goes something like this: too much n-6 from polyunsaturated vegetable oil (along with insufficient n-3), plus too much fructose from sweeteners, combine to cause NAFLD. The liver becomes insulin resistant at this point, leading to whole-body insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, impaired glucose tolerance and general metabolic havoc.


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