You’ve probably heard of fatty liver disease – a disease commonly associated with those who partake of too much alcohol, causing problems for the liver among other issues. But did you know there’s another form of liver disease, that’s rising in occurrence even among those who rarely or never imbibe? There is, and it’s called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). It’s a growing problem, and although its true prevalence is unknown, some estimates suggest it may affect as many as one-third of American adults.
Obesity Is the Biggest Contributor to NAFLD
If your doctor tells you that you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, it means you have an excess of fat stored in your liver cells, which may cause inflammation, liver cell damage, and potentially scarring of the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Generally, NAFLD is caused by being overweight or obese; insulin resistance; high blood sugar, indicating prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes; metabolic syndrome; and high levels of fats, especially triglycerides, in the blood.
As if battling obesity isn’t challenging enough, the consequences of NAFLD can be severe – cirrhosis and liver cancer can cause death.
You might not have any inkling you have NAFLD without a thorough medical examination because symptoms don’t always present themselves. Some people may develop signs such as tiredness or pain in the upper right side of the abdomen where the liver is located. Other signs may include a swollen belly, enlarged blood vessels underneath your skin’s surface, larger than normal breasts in men, red palms, and skin and eyes that appear yellowish due to jaundice.
How NAFLD Is Diagnosed
Because early-stage NAFLD seldom causes signs and symptoms, it may only be detected by your doctor during a routine medical exam. Many cases are uncovered after doctors order liver tests to monitor people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs.
When NAFLD is suspected, the following tests may be ordered:
- Liver-function test
- Computerized tomography (CT)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- A liver biopsy
How to Reduce Your Risk
Your best defense against nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is to maintain a healthy weight and normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. In other words:
- Choose a healthy, plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese.
- Exercise most days of the week.
Dr. Sahil Mittal is a board-certified gastroenterologist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Katy Clinic, Pasadena Clinic, and Berthelsen Main Campus. His numerous research efforts have dealt primarily with liver cancer, viral hepatitis, and fatty liver. Besides liver disease, his clinical interests are functional bowel disorders and gastrointestinal cancer screening.