Why menopause may put you at risk for liver damage

There’s a common misconception that liver disease is only a threat to people who drink a lot of alcohol or take a lot of medications. But that’s not the case…

Sure, those factors put your liver in a much more precarious position, but anyone can develop liver disease. In fact, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) — a type of liver disease that occurs in people who drink little to no alcohol — is very common.

It impacts one in four people worldwide and is the most common cause of liver damage. As you may know, liver damage can lead to liver cancer or liver failure, both of which can be deadly.

There are a lot of well-known risk factors for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, sleep apnea, hypothyroidism. But there’s a new, surprising risk factor for NAFLD that research has just uncovered… menopause.

A recent research review shows that postmenopausal women are much more likely to develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease than premenopausal women. Why? It all comes down to hormones…

Hormonal changes after menopause take a toll on the liver

Researchers from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) just performed a research review on the connection between menopause and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. In their review, they looked at more than 60 studies, and here’s what they found…

After women go through menopause, they have a much higher risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease thanks to an endocrine hormone called estradiol (E2).

Now, E2 is the major female sex hormone. It regulates the estrous and menstrual female reproductive cycles. It’s produced in the ovaries, but it’s production tanks after menopause. And that’s where the liver risks come into play, according to researchers.

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They say that E2 has a protective effect on the liver. Without enough, the liver is more prone to take on too much fat. This excess fat is toxic to liver cells and can cause inflammation in the liver or even scarring.

In fact, based on the rising mortality rate for women with NAFLD, and the fact that more women with NAFLD are dying from cirrhosis, researchers suspect that NAFLD is turning into an even more dangerous liver condition in many women — nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).

Once liver inflammation and liver cell damage occur, NAFLD is recategorized as NASH. And NASH is much more serious. It’s now the leading indicator for a liver transplant.

How to protect your liver post-menopause

Here’s the good news…

Even though you can’t control the fact that you’ve already gone through, or will eventually go through, menopause (if you’re a woman, anyway), you can strongly influence other risk factors for NAFLD like your weight, cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin levels. Eating a healthy diet comprised mostly of whole foods and exercising regularly can go a long way toward protecting women from liver disease after menopause.

Researchers also believe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could be a method of lowering post-menopausal liver disease risk down the line. Of course, there needs to be more research to know for sure what timing, dosage and duration of hormone therapy would work to counteract liver disease risk. And there’s also the fact that HRT comes with its own set of risks.

For now, do everything you can to give your liver the support it needs to stay healthy. You may even want to consider supplements that support a healthy liver, like N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), milk thistle, turmeric and alpha lipoic acid (ALA). And even though alcohol and medications aren’t the driving factors behind NAFLD, they do add extra stress to your liver. So, think carefully before you pour that glass of wine or start a new prescription.

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  1. TGen review suggests postmenopausal women at risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — EurekAlert!
  2. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — Mayo Clinic.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.