An Overview of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

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Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a type of liver disease that is not caused by alcohol. It typically does not cause symptoms in the early stages, but it can cause health problems due to fat accumulation, inflammation, and scarring in the liver.

NAFLD is commonly associated with obesity and diabetes, and it can progress if these conditions are not well controlled or if they are left untreated. Progression leads to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is a type of liver failure that causes fatigue and potentially life-threatening metabolic problems. There is no medication that can cure NAFLD or NASH, and controlling the associated risk factors is a vital part of minimizing future liver damage.

Symptoms

NAFLD develops slowly, over many years. It generally affects adults over the age of 50, although it can occur sooner. You might not notice any symptoms of NAFLD at all, or you may experience some mild, vague effects of fatty liver disease.

Symptoms that you may experience if you have NAFLD include:

  • Fatigue
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Jaundice (yellowing skin or eyes)
  • Yellow or dark urine

Some of these effects, especially fatigue, are easy to ignore. Diabetes and obesity, which commonly begin before NAFLD develops, are also associated with fatigue—making it difficult to notice increasing fatigue caused by NAFLD.

Often, people who have fatty liver do not have symptoms until the condition progresses and liver failure occurs.

Complications

A more serious complication of fatty liver, NASH, develops when the liver begins to lose function. NASH produces distressing effects, and it interferes with your ability to metabolize certain foods and medication.

The symptoms that can be associated with NAFLD are more common in NASH. And you are likely to experience additional effects as well, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble thinking and concentrating
  • Difficulty walking

Eventually, end-stage liver disease, which can impair your ability to function, may develop. Some or all of these life-threatening conditions can occur in late-stage NASH or NAFLD:

Causes

The exact cause of NAFLD is not known, but it is usually preceded by certain medical conditions. These conditions interfere with the body's metabolism, and this may cause excess fat to accumulate in the liver.

Risk factors associated with NAFLD include:

How Liver Damage Occurs in NAFLD

When more than 5 to 10 percent of your liver’s weight is composed of fat, the effects of fatty liver can occur. The liver becomes swollen, and blood flow can be slowed down. A liver which has excess fat is also vulnerable to inflammation, scarring, decreased function, and liver failure,

Inflammation causes scarring in advanced NAFLD, which can lead to cirrhosis. Whenever your liver becomes damaged, your body lays down collagen to repair it. Fibrosis (thickening of the liver tissue) then ensues.

The liver damage of NAFLD is virtually identical to the liver damage seen in alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Impaired Liver Function

The liver is the largest internal organ in your body. It performs several functions, such as processing everything you eat and drink, detoxifying chemicals (such as medications), controlling blood sugar levels, and helping build immune proteins.

When NAFLD interferes with your liver function, health problems can result.

Diagnosis

Fatty liver is often detected incidentally before any symptoms occur. You may have an abdominal imaging test for another reason, and it can show an enlarged liver.

Sometimes NAFLD is detected during an unrelated surgical procedure of the abdomen. Your surgeon may notice that your liver appears enlarged and lighter in color than a typical liver. If discovered during surgery, the texture may also be softer than a typical liver.

If you have risk factors for NAFLD you may need a diagnostic evaluation so you and your medical team will know if you are developing fatty liver. And if you have started to develop some of the effects, then you may need a diagnostic workup to identify the cause of your symptoms.

Some tests you may have include:

  • Blood tests: Liver enzymes can be altered in fatty liver, and these levels can be measured in the blood. Sometimes, liver enzymes are normal until scarring begins to occur.
  • Imaging tests: Abdominal ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can often identify an enlarged liver.
  • Liver biopsy: A liver biopsy is a sample of the liver tissue. It is obtained with a surgical procedure. The sample is examined under a microscope, and it may show signs of fatty liver disease, an infection, inflammation, cancer, or another condition affecting the liver.

Treatment

There is not a cure for NAFLD, but there are strategies that can prevent it from developing and that can keep it from progressing if you already have it.

Managing fatty liver includes the following approaches:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid a high-fat diet
  • Keep your blood sugar controlled
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Do not use medications that are contraindicated for use with liver disease, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Minimize your consumption of foods that contain preservatives, dyes, and artificial ingredients
  • Try to eat a diet that is rich in health-promoting antioxidants, such as vitamin E and vitamin C

There are several herbs associated with improved liver health. Milk thistle, turmeric, and burdock may have detoxifying effects. Herbs have not been proven to work as effective treatments for NAFLD, but experts suggest that they may have potential in treating this disease.

Caution With Medications and Supplements

When you have liver disease, it is important that you are cautious when using medications, supplements, and herbs, A number of medications and supplements are harmful to the liver, so be sure to ask your pharmacist if any of your medications—even those that are over-the-counter—can damage the liver.

Products that do not directly harm the liver can be problematic when you have liver disease. Many medications, supplements, and herbs are detoxified by the liver.

When the liver cannot detoxify chemicals effectively, their metabolites may build up in your body, causing harmful effects.

Diet

Liver disease can impair your metabolism of food, especially protein and fat. If you have NAFLD, you should meet with a dietitian to get advice about managing your diet.

Transplant

A liver transplant can be an option for you if you have major health problems due to NASH. This is a major procedure, and it takes a toll on your body—so it isn't necessarily right for everyone. You and your doctor can discuss the risks and benefits of a liver transplant, and whether it would be an option for you.

A Word From Verywell

It can be a shock to learn that you have liver disease, especially if you are not a heavy drinker. Keep in mind that even if you have NAFLD or NASH, there are ways to manage your condition. When you follow the recommendations for managing your liver disease, your overall health will undoubtedly improve as well because the strategies—weight loss, eating healthy, natural foods, and blood sugar control—can help prevent many other conditions as well as NAFLD and NASH.

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