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Health Team

Duke: Drinking too many sodas could injure your liver

Posted March 31, 2010 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated March 31, 2010 6:32 p.m. EDT

— Drinking too many sugary sodas isn't good for your body. The calories can pack on the pounds and affect your blood sugar levels, but that’s not all.

Most people would be surprised at how much sugar is actually in a typical carbonated beverage. The sugar is normally added in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

Drinking too much of it can contribute to obesity and diabetes. Now Duke researchers say it's also associated with injury to the liver.

When it's time for a drink, Don Tegnelia reaches for water or unsweetened tea. Until recently, it was all sugary sodas, ever since his root beer days as a kid.

“My mom would buy those 2-liter bottles, and I would go through those like candy,” he said.

Recently, the 36-year-old was dealing with gout. He had a blood test which revealed another problem.

“And they came back to me and said that I had hepatitis and they didn't know exactly what type of hepatitis,” Tegnelia said.

It turned out to be NASH, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. Most patients don't feel any symptoms.

Tegnelia joined a study at Duke looking at patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. They took liver biopsies and used dietary questionnaires to see if there was a connection to sweetened sodas.

“To our surprise, we found that the increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup was associated with increased scarring in the liver,” said Duke Gastroenterologist Dr. Manal Abdelmalek.

In a written response, the Corn Refiners Association pointed out that the Duke study singled out high fructose corn syrup for blame, but in fact looked at all fructose-containing beverages.

"The researchers counted intake of fruit juices and other beverages containing fructose from sugar, even though those beverages contain no high fructose corn syrup at all," the statement said.

The liver helps in the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients in the body. In obese people, excess calories may lead to the body depositing fat in vital organs like the heart and liver.

“And with that could come the potential for inflammation or injury in that organ,” Abdelmalek said.

Injuries can include liver scarring, cirrhosis and liver cancer. There are no approved drug treatments for NASH, but Tegnelia is in other clinical trials. He said he’s eating healthier foods and avoiding sodas.

“The trials that we have going on today, along with my diet, have allowed it to not progress any further,” he said.

About 30 percent of adults in the United States have fatty liver disease, but many may not be aware of it because it's typically asymptomatic. Only a minority of patients progress to cirrhosis of the liver, and then they're at higher risk of more serious problems.

Besides sodas, there are also many processed foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. More studies are needed to look at exactly how the sweetener affects the liver.