What you can do about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

August 13, 2014 Carolyn Anderson, ARNP

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is a term used to describe the presence of fat accumulation in the liver. NAFLD affects approximately 20-30% of United States population, and is most commonly diagnosed between 40 – 50 years of age. Recent studies have shown an even distribution of NAFLD between men and women.

A healthy liver may contain some fat. However, NAFLD occurs when the liver has trouble breaking down fats, causing excess fat to build-up in the liver. Mild fat accumulation usually does not result in inflammation of the liver. More severe fat accumulation can cause inflammation, and potential progression to cirrhosis (scarring of liver tissue). People who drink too much alcohol can get a condition similar to NAFLD, but NAFLD happens in people who do not drink alcohol or only a little alcohol.

We still have much to learn about the specific cause of NAFLD, but it is often associated with:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Conditions that cause high blood sugar levels (diabetes)
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Celiac disease
  • Some medications

For many people there are usually no signs or symptoms. If present they may include fatigue, right upper abdominal discomfort, and weight loss.

Although there are no medical treatments yet for NAFLD, recommendations are aimed at decreasing potential risk factors. Eating a healthy diet and exercising on a regular basis may help prevent liver damage from starting, and can help reverse fatty liver changes in the early stages.

  • Weight loss
  • Exercise
    • Cardiovascular – promotes weight loss
    • Weight training – increases muscle mass
  • Diabetes control
  • Cholesterol control
  • Maintaining a gluten free diet with celiac disease
  • Abstaining from alcohol – although not the cause of NAFLD, it can enhance liver health

If you are concerned about symptoms or have questions about NAFLD, you should talk with your health care provider.

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