Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It’s no secret that B vitamins are nutritional powerhouses. These particular nutrients, of which there are eight total, play a role in a host of physiological functions, from building DNA to red blood cell development to keeping the nervous system running smoothly. And they’re particularly beneficial for your mood, stress levels, and energy.
However, based on recent research, there may be even bigger benefits to ensuring you’re getting plenty of B vitamins in your daily diet. It could play a role in keeping your liver healthy and, for some liver conditions, hold promise as a future treatment.
B Vitamins May Be a Promising Potential Treatment for Common Liver Conditions
Researchers took a close look at the impact of B vitamins – specifically, vitamin B12 and folic acid – on liver health in a study published in Journal of Hepatology.
Using preclinical models and data from humans, the researchers looked at how levels of homocysteine increased as fatty liver disease progressed, specifically how non-alcoholic fatty liver disease turned into non-alcoholic steatohepatitis over time. They found that as the liver’s homocysteine levels rose, amino acids present also changed in structure and in typical function. These changes actually blocked some liver proteins from transporting and digesting fat (or performing autophagy, a key cellular process within the body).
It also impacted the liver’s metabolism, mitochondrial turnover, and ability to prevent inflammation. This, in turn, appeared to make way for fatty liver disease to worsen.
However, when the researchers supplemented diets with vitamin B12 and folic acid in preclinical models, these two nutrients were able to restore autophagy. The supplements also helped to slow down the progression towards non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and lowered (and even reversed) inflammation in the liver.
The findings from this research suggest that vitamin B12 and folic acid may have the potential to positively impact liver health, specifically when it comes to individuals with fatty liver disease. These particular nutrients, in the form of supplements, may even hold the possibility of reversing fatty liver disease.
What is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition in which fat builds up inside the liver. But it’s also something of an umbrella term, as it includes a range of different liver conditions that affect individuals who drink little to no alcohol, yet experience a similar accumulation of fat as those living with alcoholic fatty liver disease.
NAFLD affects a surprisingly large number of individuals – 25 percent of all adults worldwide are living with the condition. And it’s closely linked to two other common health concerns, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
As NAFLD progresses, it can lead to further liver woes like cirrhosis, scarring, liver dysfunction, and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which currently has no known pharmacological treatments available. Perhaps most importantly, both NAFLD and NASH can develop in just about anyone. While some health factors may put you at an increased risk, even those who avoid alcohol can develop NAFLD.
B Vitamins Can Offer Benefits in Combination with Proper Nutrition
While the findings of this research study are exciting, especially when it comes to finding a potential treatment for NAFLD and NASH, the scientists do caution that more research is needed.
But with this initial study, there is plenty to be excited about when it comes to the future of liver health and treating both NAFLD and NASH. As senior author Professor Paul M. Yen, Head of the Laboratory of Hormonal Regulation at Duke-NUS’ Cardiovascular & Metabolic Disorders Programme, told Science Daily, “The potential for using vitamin B12 and folate, which have high safety profiles and are designated as dietary supplements by the US Food and Drug Administration, as first-line therapies for the prevention and treatment of NASH could result in tremendous cost savings and reduce the health burden from NASH in both developed and developing countries.”
While more research will likely test these findings in the years to come, there are steps you can take to protect your liver and give it a health boost right now. If you’re diagnosed with a form of fatty liver disease, you can discuss potential nutrients – like vitamin B12 and folic acid – with your doctor, and determine if supplement these may be beneficial.
Additionally, you can also look to your daily diet for some liver health benefits. Previous research suggests that adding certain foods into your meals may help address fatty liver disease, and some are incredibly easy to try (like coffee!) And there’s also research that suggests which foods and beverages may be potential contributors to NAFLD and NASH, which you can limit or consume in moderation.