Most people believe chronic liver diseases like cirrhosis are primarily seen in people who are heavy drinkers. Many are surprised to learn that the other types of liver diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and its subtype nonalcoholic steatohepatitis affect roughly 30% of the U.S. population or approximately 100 million people.
What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a broad classification of liver conditions that affect people who drink little to no alcohol. The defining characteristic of this range of diseases is the overaccumulation of fat stored in cells of the liver.
Whom does it affect?
In the United States, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common form of chronic liver disease, and the number of people diagnosed each year is steadily increasing. The disease is found in almost every age group, but people in their 40s and 50s are most susceptible due to other common contributing high-risk conditions like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
What are the potential complications?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis injure the liver via prolonged periods of inflammation, usually with few or no symptoms. As the liver tries to deal with the swelling, it produces areas of scarring called fibrosis. As the inflammation persists, more extensive areas of liver tissue develop scarring until the condition reaches the point where the liver's functioning is disrupted.
If the cycle of liver inflammation and scarring isn't corrected, liver disease and cirrhosis in its more advanced stages can lead to:
- Deterioration in brain function, such as mental fogginess and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Inflammation and possible rupture of the veins in the esophagus (esophageal varices)
- Abdominal fluid buildup (ascites)
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
Nationally, about 20 percent of people diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis progress to develop cirrhosis.
What can you do to take better care of yourself if diagnosed with fatty liver disease?
- Cut down or eliminate your consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is known for its damaging effect on the liver, so if you are looking to repair inflammation to your liver, it is best to completely avoid alcohol.
- Get serious about eating healthier. Plant-based diets that include lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats are best to help feed your body with the nutrients it needs to repair an entire host of issues including fatty livers.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight or living with obesity, it is important that you work with your doctor and/or registered dietitian to follow the nutrition plan that’s right for you and that will help you achieve a healthy weight.
- Get more exercise. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you don't currently exercise regularly. Your doctor can monitor your fitness and suggest exercises to meet any physical restrictions you might be facing.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis can be managed if you work with your doctors and follow the nutrition and exercise regimens they prescribe. You may also get the added benefits of losing weight, lowering blood pressure, and reducing your risk of developing other common diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It takes commitment to change your lifestyle, but the potential health benefits are well worth it.
Learn more about the leading-edge treatment strategies offered at the Swedish Liver Center, part of the Swedish Digestive Health Institute. Talk to a Swedish digestive health nurse navigator who can answer your questions and help you find the right specialists.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.