Even Skipping Meat for One Meal Helps Liver Disease Patients

Even Skipping Meat for One Meal Helps Liver Disease Patients
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Key Takeaways

  • Livers impaired by cirrhosis can't efficiently process ammonia arising from the gut, which triggers a dangerous buildup in the blood

  • New research finds that meat boosts ammonia production, and switching to plant-based fare lowered ammonia after just one meal

  • The results are preliminary, but doctors may want to advise cirrhosis patients to move away from meat

FRIDAY, May 3, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Advanced liver cirrhosis can push levels of ammonia in the blood to hazardous levels, but skipping meat at mealtime can help reverse that, new research shows.

“It was exciting to see that even small changes in your diet, like having one meal without meat once in a while, could benefit your liver by lowering harmful ammonia levels in patients with cirrhosis,” said study lead author Dr. Jasmohan Bajaj, a gastroenterologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. 

As the research team explained, bacteria in your gut automatically generate ammonia as they help the body digest food. In folks with healthy livers, the organ takes that ammonia and sends it to the kidneys, where its excreted harmlessly via urine. 

However, cirrhosis impairs the organ's ability to process ammonia so that it builds up in a toxic way. 

Ammonia can even travel to the brain and trigger confusion or delirium, the researchers noted. That's called hepatic encephalopathy, and without treatment it can lead to coma and death. 

Diet can play a big role in these processes, because Western diets low in fiber and high in meat and carbohydrates boost levels of ammonia produced by the gut.

So, what if a culprit like meat was cut out of the mix?

The new study involved 30 meat-eating adults treated for cirrhosis at the Richmond VA Medical Center. Patients were asked to eat a meal containing one of three types of burgers: One made of a pork/beef mix, another with a vegan meat substitute, and a third with a vegetarian "bean burger" recipe. 

The protein level of the three burgers was the same: about 20 grams. Folks ate their burgers with low-fat potato chips and a whole grain bun, without any toppings.

A few hours after the meal, Bajaj and colleagues used specific amino acid markers in the blood to gauge blood ammonia levels. 

Patients who stuck with the meat burger had higher blood levels of ammonia than those who consumed either of the plant-based burgers, the team found.

“It can be so hard to make long-term dietary and behavioral changes," Bajaj acknowledged, but "we wondered if making an occasional change could be an option for these patients. Liver patients with cirrhosis should know that making positive changes in their diet doesn't have to be overwhelming or difficult."

Of course, the study group was very small, so the Richmond team stressed that the findings are preliminary. Still, they believe it can't hurt for physicians to relay the new findings to patients with cirrhosis, and encourage them to move away from meat.

The findings were published May 2 in Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology.

More information

Find out more about liver cirrhosis at the American Liver Foundation.

SOURCE: Virginia Commonwealth University, news release, May 2, 2024

What This Means For You

Simply cutting out meat in just one meal lowered unhealthy levels of ammonia in the blood for folks with advanced liver disease.

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