Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

What is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is a condition that causes an accumulation of fat cells on the livers of people who do not consume large amounts of alcohol. It is becoming increasingly common worldwide, particularly in Western countries. In the United States alone, NAFLD affects up to one hundred million people each year, making it the most common type of liver disease in the nation.

The exact cause of NAFLD is not currently known. However, certain risk factors have been identified, including gastric bypass surgery, obesity, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, and underactive thyroid or pituitary gland. In some cases, though, patients with no clear risk factors have also developed NAFLD. The condition appears most frequently in older adults who are already determined to be at high risk for heart disease due to diabetes and obesity.

What are the Symptoms of Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

Most people with NAFLD will not experience any indicators of the disease. On the occasions when symptoms do arise, patients usually report pain, abdominal swelling, enlarged blood vessels, enlarged spleen, fatigue, red palms, jaundice, and weight loss. Children might complain about abdominal pain and perhaps fatigue, although these are not specific to NAFLD. In time, the condition can become serious and lead to inflammation of the liver or cirrhosis. If left unchecked, cirrhosis can lead to complications like abdominal fluid buildup, liver cancer, and even end-stage liver failure.

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Causes

The precise cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is not currently known, but there are a number of risk factors and associated conditions that may be the cause in many patients. This disease has been seen to run in families, so a genetic factor is possible. Being overweight is a strong risk factor, especially when the patient is obese. Patients who have high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, pre diabetes or diabetes type 2 are more likely to develop this condition. Malnutrition and quick weight loss, as with the results of weight-loss surgery, are thought to be possible causes. Inherited liver diseases and autoimmune diseases are also risk factors. Some medications, especially those that impact liver function, may be behind some cases. For some, having too much material inside the small intestine has been linked to this disease. High levels of blood sugar and/or fats in the blood may trigger the development of this disease. It is believed that many of these risk factors may work together to create this accumulation of fat in the liver. It is unknown why some people with these conditions develop this disease while other do not.

How is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Treated?

There is no standard treatment for NAFLD. Rather, doctors will treat the condition that is determined to be the underlying cause. Consequently, treatments will vary widely. Obese patients may benefit from increased physical exercise, dietary changes to reduce carbohydrate and fat intake, and weight loss. Diabetics will likely be prescribed anti-diabetic drugs. In other cases, medical professionals will recommend the use of dietary supplements and vitamins.

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Prevention

While not all cases of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can be prevented, many cases are believed to be caused by poor nutrition. With obesity a major risk factor, it’s important to stay at a healthy weight in order to avoid this disease. Like obesity, too much fat or sugar in the blood as well as insulin resistance is often caused by eating a diet high in fat and sugar. To prevent developing this disease, eat a low-fat, low-sugar diet that is well balanced with fruits and vegetables and increase your exercise level. Avoid skipping meals and losing weight too quickly. Aim for 1 to 2 pounds a week of weight loss.

Last Reviewed:
October 07, 2016
Last Updated:
January 25, 2018