Non-alcohol Fatty Liver Disease
The liver is an essential organ that has many functions. The liver serves as a filter for the body by removing harmful toxins or impurities from the bloodstream. The liver also performs metabolically by converting food to energy, and stores the fat soluble vitamins D and E. When diseased or damaged, however, the ability of the liver to perform these functions can be significantly impaired.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, is a common liver condition that occurs when fat accumulates in the liver of a person who consumes little or no alcohol. While it is normal for the liver to contain some fat, patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease usually experience difficulties breaking down the fat in the liver. This can result in an excess of fat being stored within the liver tissue, which may lead to inflammation and damage in the liver.
Types of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
NAFLD is an umbrella term that refers to several forms of fatty liver disease, which vary in their severity. The three forms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are:
- NAFLD, or simple steatosis. This is the mildest form of fatty liver disease, characterized by the presence of too much fat in the liver.
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH. A more serious form of NAFLD, this variation is defined by excessive fat accumulations in the liver that causes inflammation and may result in scar tissue.
- NASH-related cirrhosis. The most dangerous form of NAFLD, this condition causes excessive fat build up in the liver that produces extensive scarring and damage throughout the liver, potentially leading to liver failure.
Symptoms of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Even the most serious forms of NAFLD typically result in few symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they often include the following:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling of the legs, or edema
- Loss of appetite
- Mental confusion
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Blackened stools
- Blood vessels that appear in a spider-like pattern
Risks for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
NAFLD has been linked to a wide range of diseases and health conditions. Some common risk factors for NAFLD may include:
- High cholesterol
- Sleep apnea
- Underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism
- Poor diet
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
Diagnosis of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
NAFLD may be suspected if a blood test shows elevated levels of enzymes in the liver. To confirm this diagnosis, a series of tests will be conducted that may include liver biopsy, further blood tests, imaging tests such as an MRI or CT scan and a liver ultrasound.
Treatment of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
NAFLD is often treated with prescription medications to manage the underlying condition that has resulted in its development. Additionally, making dietary and lifestyle changes may be sufficient for many patients.
In its simplest form, NAFLD is a benign condition, so surgery will not be required. NASH is typically also be treated with the same methods. However, the most serious form of NAFLD, NASH-related cirrhosis, may eventually require liver transplantation surgery.
Prevention of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Preventative measures can significantly reduce a patient's risk for any form of NAFLD. Patients with pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, may be able to reduce their risk of developing NAFLD simply by controlling these other health issues with either medication or a healthy diet and exercise routine. Patients who smoke cigarettes will be recommended to quit the habit, and everyone at risk for NAFLD should avoid taking any unnecessary medication.
Although NAFLD is not related to alcohol use, consuming alcoholic drinks may cause the condition to worsen. Therefore, patients are advised to refrain from drinking any alcoholic beverages.