Being overweight can have serious effects on several parts of your body, including your liver. Although your liver usually has a small amount of fat in it, too much can result in a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
While this condition usually doesn’t cause symptoms, it can lead to more serious health problems. If you’re overweight, your risk of having NAFLD is higher. Understanding this disease and learning how to prevent it can help you keep your liver healthy.
Other causes of fatty liver include alcohol intake, diabetes, having high cholesterol, etc. When fatty liver was noticed in patients who did not have significant alcohol intake, it was named non-alcoholic fatty liver, to differentiate from the alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Causes of NAFLD
Although the underlying cause of NAFLD isn’t known, doctors do know how it occurs. This disease develops when your liver is unable to break fats down effectively, leading to higher amounts of it. NAFLD affects up to 25 percent of people in the US, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD).
Symptoms of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
In most cases, this disease does not cause any symptoms. If it progresses, it can cause liver inflammation and scarring, known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). In the later stages of NASH, some people experience pain in their upper right abdomen, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.
Having a fatty liver can lead to NASH, which affects up to five percent of people in the US, according to NIDDKD. NASH is typically known as a silent disease, since it does not cause symptoms in the early stages. NASH can result in cirrhosis, or severe scarring of the liver, which prevents this organ from functioning properly. In the most serious cases, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure.
Risk Factors for NAFLD
Being overweight is one of the most common risk factors of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which typically affects middle-aged people. Having other health conditions that are typically associated with an unhealthy diet, such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels, can also raise your risk of developing fatty liver disease. Other risk factors include:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Underactive thyroid or pituitary gland
Diagnosis of NAFLD
Since NAFLD does not normally cause symptoms, how will you know if you have it? Your doctor might conduct blood tests, imaging procedures, or liver tissue testing if you have abnormal results on a routine physical. These tests check your liver function and the size and physical condition of your liver.
Most of the patients with NAFLD or NASH are asymptomatic and their liver enzymes may be entirely normal, even when they develop cirrhosis. Hence, a basic laboratory panel does not give any clues to the presence or absence of NAFLD. If you are diagnosed with NAFLD, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you.
Treatment of NAFLD
NAFLD is not treated with medication or any other type of medical treatment. Instead, treatment focuses on making healthy lifestyle changes to help reduce the amount of fat in the liver- this would be achieved by controlling the risk factors that caused NAFLD - such as diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity. Some of the changes your doctor might suggest include:
- Eating healthy by including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in your diet and reducing the amount of calories you eat
- Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day
- Managing diabetes
- Bringing high cholesterol and triglyceride levels down through healthy eating and medication, if necessary
- Avoiding alcohol
- Being careful about taking over-the-counter pain relievers and other medications that can affect your liver
- Seeing a healthcare provider who specializes in liver disease
If you haven’t been diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, you can lower your risk of developing it by losing excess weight. Continuing to maintain a healthy body weight through diet and exercise can help protect your liver from high amounts of fat.
If you have liver problems, the skilled specialists at Gastroenterology Associates, housed in the Digestive Health Center of Louisiana at 9103 Jefferson Hwy in Baton Rouge, La, are here to help. Contact us to make an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists.
Disclaimer: All information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not replace the consultative advice and experienced feedback from your physician. Always consult with your physicians on any of your questions and concerns.