What’s non-alcoholic fatty liver disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common chronic liver condition in the U.S. According to the American Liver Foundation, about 100 million individuals in the U.S. have the disease where excess fat builds up in the liver cells and can lead to liver damage. NAFLD is not caused by the consumption of alcohol and occurs more in patients who are overweight or obese with a BMI higher than 25 or have high blood sugar or cholesterol. If NAFLD goes untreated, it can progressively lead to other serious liver conditions, like:
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), when excess fat causes liver inflammation and damage
- Cirrhosis, when the healthy liver is severely destroyed, leaving behind scar tissue and the risk of liver failure and liver cancer
The unfortunate reality of NAFLD is how it negatively impacts liver function with no presence of signs or symptoms.
“Oftentimes, patients are confused by their diagnosis as they lack symptoms of traditional liver disease or are not drinking or overconsuming alcohol,” said Mara Stasik, physician assistant in the transplant hepatology program at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center.
Therefore, it is important for patients to meet regularly with their primary care provider for annual preventative screenings, she said. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team if they have any of the following risk factors or symptoms of liver disease:
- Are overweight or obese with a BMI higher than 25
- High cholesterol or triglycerides
- Diabetes mellitus or high blood sugar
- Feeling fatigued or have discomfort or pain in upper right abdomen
- Skin or eyes are jaundice (yellowish in color)
“If diagnosed with NAFLD, healing your liver can take time, but is possible,” said Stasik. “Upon diagnosis, you should see a liver specialist to discuss how to manage your disease and ultimately prevent severe damage, like cirrhosis, or the need for a liver transplant.”
Here are a few tips she suggests to decrease your chance of fatty liver:
- Maintain a healthy weight, BMI <25
- Eat a healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet is recommended to consume more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and plant-based foods like beans, legumes, and nuts. Limit sugary sodas and sweets, and animal-based foods like red meat which are high in saturated fats
- Increase exercise. Stasik recommends 30 minutes most days of the week
- Control blood sugar and cholesterol
- Minimize alcohol use
“We want patients to realize how prevalent NAFLD is and how a few changes in their lifestyle can prevent them from serious liver damage,” She said. ” Overall, focusing on your health can help identify and avoid this very common chronic liver disease.”
About the Author
Michelle is a 20-year veteran in the health and human services industry. Throughout her career, she has helped families navigate community and educational resources, supported children in foster care to successfully transition to adulthood, and advocated alongside survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Michelle donated her kidney to her best friend’s father in 2014 and ever since has been an avid supporter of organ donation. Michelle enjoys spending time with her family and friends at the beach, pool and live concerts.