How can you guard against this common liver disease that has no symptoms?
If you put your hand on your chest, you can feel your heart beat and your lungs fill with air. Your stomach growls when you’re hungry.
But the biggest organ in your body — your liver — usually goes unnoticed. And your liver is essential for keeping you healthy. For example, your liver helps with digestion and cleaning toxins from your blood. Some harmful toxins are unavoidable in your day-to-day life. But your liver helps keep you safe.
Sometimes, however, your liver may not work the way it’s supposed to. That can lead to certain diseases of the liver. Experts estimate that one liver disease in particular, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), affects nearly a quarter of American adults.
Here’s the scary part: NAFLD usually has no symptoms, and it can lead to some serious complications if left untreated.
What is NAFLD, how do you know if you have it, and how can it be treated? Find out below.
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What is NAFLD?
NAFLD happens when fat builds up in your liver. Sometimes, this fat can lead to scarring and other damage to your liver. As the name implies, this fat buildup is not related to heavy alcohol use. (Since one of your liver’s jobs is to break down alcohol, heavy drinking can lead to fat buildup and damage.) While alcoholic liver diseases usually only happen to heavy drinkers, NAFLD can happen to anyone.
There are 2 types of NAFLD: nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Most people with NAFLD have NAFL. About 25% to 30% have NASH.
NAFL means that you have fat in your liver, but it’s not causing inflammation or other damage. NAFL doesn’t usually lead to more serious liver problems. But people with NAFL may have a higher risk of other diseases, such as:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
NASH is more serious. It causes inflammation and damage that could lead to scarring of the liver. That could develop into cirrhosis, which is permanent, and cause even more severe scarring of the liver. That makes it harder for your liver to work well and keep you healthy. The damage caused by NASH is similar to the damage caused by heavy alcohol use. NASH can also lead to liver cancer.
What causes NAFLD, and who’s at risk?
NAFLD occurs on a spectrum from simple steatosis (fat in the liver) to end-stage liver disease. Experts aren’t exactly sure why some people get liver damage from NAFLD and others don’t.
“NAFLD is commonly associated with metabolic factors such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome, and high cholesterol,” says Nancy Reau, M.D. She’s the chief of hepatology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
If you have any of the following conditions, you may also be at higher risk of developing NAFLD:
- Overweight or obesity. Research suggests that up to 75% of people who are overweight have NAFLD. And more than 90% of people with severe obesity may have it.
- Type 2 diabetes. It’s estimated that one-third to two-thirds of people with diabetes also have NAFLD.
- Metabolic syndrome. This is defined as having 3 or more of the following symptoms:
- High blood pressure
- High blood lipids
- Higher than normal blood sugar or type 2 diabetes
- Large waist size
- Low HDL cholesterol
NAFLD can develop at any age. But it’s more common as you get older. It can affect people of any race or ethnicity, but it’s most common in Hispanics. Genetics may explain why it’s more or less common in different racial and ethnic groups.
Some other potential causes of fatty liver disease include:
- Certain genetic disorders
- Exposure to some toxins
- Some medications, such as corticosteroids (a type of steroid often used to treat inflammation), HIV treatments, estrogen, and others
How do you know if you have NAFLD?
NAFLD has few or no symptoms, so it’s hard to know if you have it. The most common symptoms are fatigue or pain in the upper right side of the abdomen.
Your doctor can check your risk of NAFLD based on your medical history. They may ask you about things such as:
- How often and how much you drink
- How physically active you are
- What medications you’re taking
- What you typically eat (some researchers think a high sugar diet could lead to fatty liver disease)
If your doctor thinks you’re at risk, they may do more screening tests, such as:
- Blood work. Your doctor may order a specific liver-function blood test.
- Imaging tests. Things like ultrasounds can detect fat or scarring on the liver.
- Physical exam. Your doctor will look for physical signs of liver disease, such as an enlarged liver or yellowed skin.
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How is NAFLD treated?
Unfortunately, your doctor can’t yet prescribe a medication to treat NAFLD. But there may be medicines for it available in the future.
“There are several medications in development, though none are yet approved,” Dr. Reau says.
Weight loss is typically the first way to treat NAFLD. Even losing just 3% to 5% of your body weight can help lower the level of fat in your liver. That’s just 6 to 10 pounds for a 200-pound person. Physical activity can help, too, even if it doesn’t lead to weight loss.
How can you help head off NAFLD?
Since NAFLD often goes hand in hand with being overweight or obese, maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to lower your risk. Other steps you can take to lower your risk include:
- Exercise regularly.
- Keep blood sugar and cholesterol at healthy levels. You can keep an eye on those numbers with regular checkups from your doctor.
- Limit added sugars in your diet. Cutting back on sugary drinks, such as soda and sweet tea, is often a good place to start.
- Watch your fat intake. Focus on eating foods with healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. Cut back on saturated fats, which are often found in animal foods such as beef, processed meats, and full-fat dairy.
If you’re worried about your risk of NAFLD, ask your doctor about it at your next checkup.
While it is common, it doesn’t always lead to serious problems. And it can be treated and even reversed with weight loss and a healthier lifestyle.
Having a health insurance plan can make preventive care easier to find. Get a plan that’s right for you by calling a licensed insurance agent at 1-800-827-9990 or searching healthmarkets.com for more information.