By Brian Christie
After several years as a broadcast journalist and anchor at CNN, my last few years on-air were spent working and enjoying the beauty and charm of Southern California. At two TV stations in San Diego, the work slowly became more challenging and frustrating. But I couldn’t understand my constant fatigue. Unexplained weakness and very little energy became part of my life. Brain fog, confusion and lack of concentration meant it took me longer to write and deliver nightly newscasts and hourly updates. Every newscast meant grinding out countless news stories at a top local independent station and eventually the FOX affiliate in San Diego, which was part of the job.
At the same time, I was producing and hosting a national weekly TV program called “The Boomer Show.” And while I’d been used to a life of irregular hours and impossible deadlines in pursuit of presenting the best news programming, the workload and multi-tasking was taxing me beyond what I believed were my limits. Something had to change — but what?
After years of blood tests, endoscopies, colonoscopies and a number of visits with specialists, my family doctor confronted me, saying the mood swings, weakness, anxiety and depression were part of a bigger problem. He sent me to Dr. Rohit Loomba, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist and professor of medicine at UCSD Medical Center. Loomba said that my liver was inflamed and presented evidence of late stage scarring also known as cirrhosis, all caused by an accumulation of fat in my liver. This condition, Loomba said, can lead to liver failure and death.
In the haze of the shocking diagnosis, my newsman’s instinct kicked in: being a non-drinker, I asked in disbelief, “isn’t cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse?”
He responded that there has been an increase in cirrhosis resulting from too much fat accumulated in the liver and that is causing an advancement in liver disease. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH, is a subset of the progressive form of nonalcoholic fatty liver diseases, or NAFLD. He also said that weight loss and lifestyle interventions may help but need to be sustained. There is no cure for cirrhosis due to NASH and no approved treatments.
Bad news! I knew there was a battle in front of me.
NASH is often called the silent killer because most times there are no symptoms, or no disease-specific symptoms, until it’s too late.
It turned out that Loomba was heading up a cutting-edge research team on nonalcoholic fatty liver diseases at the NAFLD Research Center at UCSD. They are trying to solve what has become a huge medical crisis affecting up to a billion people globally and 100 million Americans. More than a third of the U.S population is at risk.
NASH is a concern especially in Western countries. In the United States, it is a common form of chronic liver disease that often occurs in people who are overweight. Carrying around excess weight will increase the risk of NASH by 75 percent. Liver problems can also interfere with the digestion of food and absorbing nutrients.
Fatty liver is caused by too much fat, sugar, white carbs, salty foods and starch in our diets. It’s typically associated with weight gain leading to obesity and in some cases, diabetes. Many are at risk of not only getting diabetes, but heart attack, high blood pressure and even stroke are also possible. Most people, like me, don’t know they have the disease until it has progressed significantly.
Children and young teens, who have been drinking soda and other empty carbs for years, are at risk of developing NASH and some are now sadly in need of liver transplants. For children a steady diet of processed foods and inactivity is causing concern.
After spending my life in broadcast journalism, I realized this disease is indeed a monster of epic proportions and one of biggest stories I’ve ever seen.
The numbers are simply staggering.
Right now, NAFLD is on track to kill millions, and these numbers continue to rise. In fact, the most severe form of fatty liver diseases, NASH, is expected to become the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States by 2020.
For you and members of your family the message is simple: denying this looming, deadly storm could put your life at risk.
There is currently no treatment for NASH, but there is hope. More than 50 compounds to help patients are presently in development.
Because it quietly kills, my NASH was allowed to progress, untreated. Had Loomba not diagnosed my condition, it would have led to end-stage liver failure and ultimately my probable death.
The early stages of NASH can be treated and potentially reversed by adopting serious lifestyle changes that you must sustain for the rest of your life. This is not an easy process, and it requires time. Also, healthy food can often be more expensive than junk food, and many don’t have access to information and resources. In later stages, experts warn, conditions can quickly become dire.
Loomba, his team of researchers, and experts in the field of NASH worldwide insist we must be proactive and take prevention seriously. With ground-breaking studies underway, there is hope in the research pipeline of finding a medication to reverse NAFLD and NASH as soon as possible. In addition, there are new cost-effective and less-invasive diagnostic tools under development But, the clock keeps ticking toward the major epidemic of our time that many health officials predict will affect us all.
Brian Christie is a television news journalist, talk show host, and former CNN anchor who resides in the San Diego area. He is currently host and executive producer of The Boomer Show.