Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, also known as NAFLD, is a liver disease caused by the build-up of extra fat in the liver cells. It’s not caused by alcohol, as the name suggests, but by other causes that we’ll discuss later in this article.
The liver functions generally with a certain amount of fat in the cells; however, if more than 10% of the liver weight is fat, it’s a form of NAFLD. A more severe form of NAFLD is NASH or Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis. NASH causes liver damage and swelling.
According to healthcare professionals and physicians, fatty liver disease tends to develop in people with diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc. Nevertheless, some people develop the disease even if they are not in any group with risk factors.
Let’s look at the leading causes of NAFLD, its symptoms, its diagnosis, and how to prevent it.
Symptoms of NAFLD/NASH
The NAFLD or NASH symptoms include pain or discomfort in the upper right abdomen, fatigue, ascites or abdominal swelling, red palms and jaundice (these are present in patients with an advanced form of the disease or patients with cirrhosis), enlarged blood vessels, and spleen, etc.
If you notice any of the symptoms above, see a doctor and eliminate any cause of concern.
NAFLD develops in four stages. And while most people won’t go past the first stage, a small number of patients will experience fatty liver disease in its final stages. Here are the stages:
- Fatty Liver Steatosis – a normal build-up of fats in the liver that’s usually harmless, and it’s diagnosed with other regular tests
- NASH – the liver becomes inflamed, and it’s a more severe form of NAFLD;
- Fibrosis – scar tissue and inflammation are persistent. However, the liver still functions properly;
- Cirrhosis – a severe stage that develops after years of inflammation; the liver becomes lumpy, scarred, and shrank;
Healthcare professionals and scientists are still researching the leading causes of fatty liver disease. According to research, certain diseases or conditions, diet, genes, and even the digestive system contribute to the development of a fatty liver.
How do Genes Contribute?
Researchers have found that genes like SNP or Single Nucleotide Polymorphism within the PNPLA3 gene and the G variant in rs738409 are the most common gene modifications that increase the risk of developing the disease. The G variant has been found in increased amounts in people with Hispanic and American heritage.
The PNPLA3 gene contributes to the lipid metabolism in the liver, and if it’s with a reduced capacity, it will slow down the breakdown of triglycerides which will, later on, lead to fatty liver and build-up of fats in the liver cells.
A second gene variant within the APOC3 gene is inherited and also responsible for breaking down triglycerides.
People with certain diseases and health conditions are more likely to develop fatty liver disease. The following list increases your chances of developing NAFLD/NASH:
- Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance;
- Metabolic syndrome – a group of medical conditions that are linked to obesity and displays high blood pressure, high HDL, high triglycerides, and blood glucose;
- Abnormal levels of cholesterol, LDL and HDL cholesterols, triglycerides, and fats in the blood;
How Does The Diet Affect Liver Health?
Sugar, the ingredient we consume daily in our foods and drinks, may increase the risk of developing NAFLD. Researchers have found a significant relationship between the sugar intake that affects the microbiome in your digestive tract and the microbiome of people with NAFLD. However, this hypothesis is still under research since experts are trying to find how the microbiome contributes to the development of fatty liver disease.
Other causes that can lead to the fatty liver are:
- Malnutrition or rapid weight loss;
- Lipodystrophies or disorders that cause improper fat storage in the body;
- Medicines like estrogens, corticosteroids, or HIV treatment;
- Genetic diseases like hypobetalipoproteinemia and Wilson disease;
- Exposure to toxins;
NAFLD is diagnosed via various methods like blood tests, liver function tests, ultrasound scans, biopsies, etc. The blood tests, also called liver function tests, show whether there is an abnormal result in the cholesterol, glucose, triglycerides, and many more units.
Such tests include:
- Blood culture;
- Blood glucose test;
- Chromosome testing;
An ultrasound scan is used to examine the insides of your abdomen. It’s a type of scan that produces sound waves that create an image of your inside. Some people might need further testing if NAFLD is diagnosed.
Take Care of Your Health!
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is the right path toward taking care of your health and preventing NAFLD. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, increased water intake, and no cigarettes and alcohol can help you reduce additional problems.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you are at increased risk of NAFLD or have any symptoms associated with the disease.