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SALT LAKE CITY — The Mayo Clinic reports 100 million people are affected by fatty liver disease across the country, and it's a growing problem in Utah, too. Often the symptoms are not recognized until it's too late, which is why early screening is so important.
One Utah woman is turning her health around after a simple, noninvasive test.
Jeanna Burrill is a veteran nurse of more than 20 years. She's helped thousands of patients manage their fatty liver disease. She never thought she'd be in their shoes — until the day she received the same diagnosis.
"I was disheartened, almost, like, scared,” she described.
Burrill started to worry. "I might be the one calling in as a patient and saying, ‘OK, when do I get my transplant?’" she said. "'Cause I definitely had the risk factors. I was overweight, a large abdominal girth, and prediabetes type picture."
Burril said she’s had elevated liver enzymes for years.
Dr. Richard Gilroy, director of Intermountain Healthcare’s Liver Transplantation Program, said fatty liver disease occurs when the body accumulates too much fat in the liver, with or without alcohol. In some cases, the disease can progress into a chronic condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, and cirrhosis, which is late-stage scarring or fibrosis of the liver.
What are the risk factors of fatty liver disease?
- High cholesterol
- High triglycerides
- Metabolic syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Type 2 diabetes Gilroy uses a specialized ultrasound machine called FibroScan® and a blood test to diagnose his patients within 10 minutes. He said it measures how stiff and how fat the liver is. Burill said having a test done by the FibroScan® is “no big deal.” Medical professionals use ultrasound gel and the machine sends a vibration to the liver, which she said feels like a little thump.
Gilroy said it is less invasive than a biopsy, which physicians used to rely on to diagnose the level of scarring in a patient’s liver. This recent technology allows doctors to avoid inserting a needle into the liver to remove a small sample, and it eliminates the amount of time they have to be monitored after the procedure.
"A complication of a biopsy can be catastrophic on rare occasions," Gilroy said.
Gilroy said fatty liver disease develops with overconsumption.
"All of these people, and all of these individuals, are consuming more calories than they ever did before,” he explained. “Your body autoregulates. So once you get fat, it's really hard to lose weight.”
He said the obesity rate in Utah is approaching 29%, "meaning that 1 in 3 people (you see) when you walk around is too fat."
Gilroy warns if the disease is not managed, “then you end up with cirrhosis and you die from that or liver cancers, if you don't make a change."
However, there is good news. Gilroy said the illness can be prevented. He said it mainly comes down to diet and exercise.
"Why would you choose transplant if you could change it now?" Burrill said. She started living the principles she'd taught her patients.
What are treatment options for a patient diagnosed with fatty liver disease?
- Lifestyle modification
- Mediterranean diet
- Increased physical activity
- Clinical trials of new therapeutic medications that reduce fat and/or scar tissue
- Bariatric surgery
- Liver transplant
So, Burrill quite literally walks 20-30 minutes first thing every morning with her dogs. “It doesn't have to be hard. It doesn't have to be running on a treadmill,” she said. "I just made it a priority.”
She also adopted a Mediterranean diet, which means she only eats one to two sweets per month.
Additionally, Burrill started drinking coffee on Gilroy’s recommendation. He said there are several studies which show coffee can have clear health benefits for people with liver disease. He said coffee has certain elements like phytosterols, which he said alters the fat development in the liver.
“They have the ability to affect oxidation pathways, and they impact certain elements associated with oxidative stress. You reduce the stress, you reduce the problems,” he explained.
In just a year, Burrill lost 44 pounds and her FibroScan® returned to normal.
"I was like, ‘Huh! It really does work,’” Burrill said.
Burrill said she lost the extra weight just in time for her wedding last summer! She started designing and making her wedding dress nearly four years before she even met her fiancé. She was thrilled to find that after losing weight, it still fit.
"It was great to be able to fit in that dress and look and feel so just radiant,” she said.
Gilroy hopes FibroScan® will help patients identify and treat their illness before it develops into a chronic condition.
He recommends people who are overweight, diabetic and over the age of 60 get screened. Intermountain Healthcare offers the FibroScan® at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.