The other drink that’s bad for your liver

A close-up picture of an iced glass of soda and the carbonation bobbles popping

When you choose a sugary soda instead of alcohol every day, you may think you’re doing your liver a favor.

But that daily soft drink can be harmful, especially to your liver — as damaging as alcohol can be.

Once it reaches the liver, the sugar in beverages can get converted into fat that’s stored in liver cells. Over time, that can lead to fatty liver disease, which can, if it doesn’t improve, cause severe scarring in the liver, also known as cirrhosis. And that can be potentially life-threatening.

That surprises a lot of people — that they can get cirrhosis although they may never or seldom drink alcohol.

Even just one sugary drink a day, after five to seven years, can lead to fatty liver disease, making you susceptible to heart disease and diabetes while also increasing your risk for cancer of the colon, pancreas and esophagus, to name a few.

How harmful are sugary drinks to your liver?

A study recently published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily for five to seven years can lead to fatty liver disease. When I tell my patients that, they’re often surprised.

How does drinking a sugary drink affect your liver?

When you drink a sugary beverage, the sugar and high fructose corn syrup in the the drink is converted into fat in your liver. That causes stress on your liver cells and affects their ability to filter toxins out of the body. The more fat that builds up in your liver, the more you’re susceptible to not only fatty liver disease and cirrhosis, but also diabetes, heart disease and cancer. However, exercise can help reduce the risk of fatty liver disease.

How common is fatty liver disease?

We see a lot of patients with fatty liver disease, mainly because of their lifestyle which includes sugary sodas.

Fatty liver disease is becoming prevalent. While alcohol-related cirrhosis is the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States, fatty liver disease has become the second most common reason for liver transplants due to the rise in the obesity rate in the U.S.

In the past 20 years, liver transplants due to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease-related cirrhosis increased from 5.3% to 23%. That’s a pretty big increase.

How often can you have a sugary beverage and not harm your liver?

If you drink one sugary drink once a week, that would be OK on your liver. A diet drink is preferable, but water is the best option. Your body is 70% water, so it’s important to drink a lot of water.

What are signs that your liver is struggling?

Symptoms that something’s wrong with your liver include nausea, loss of appetite and a lack of energy. Also, you may have pain in your liver, on your right side just below your ribcage. Over time, you might experience jaundice, in which your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow.

If you get fatty liver disease, do you have it forever?

Fatty liver disease is reversible and treatable. It requires lifestyle changes including increased physical activity, a consistent healthy diet, exercise and weight loss. There are also several trials at Ohio State looking at the benefits of certain drugs for the treatment of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

How can we prevent fatty liver disease besides cutting out or significantly limiting sugar-sweetened drinks?

If you’re at high risk of developing fatty liver disease, exercise more. Walk more, work out more and eat a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as drink more water. If you do all of that, you can enjoy an occasional soda without it harming your health.

The first step in the journey to your best health begins with a primary care provider who cares

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