The Dangers of Fatty Liver Disease

Graphic of unhealthy liver cell.

Fatty liver disease is a condition in which the liver’s healthy, reddish-brown tissue becomes streaked with fatty deposits. Based on how it’s acquired, fatty liver disease is categorized as Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (AFLD) or Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD.)

Both AFLD and NAFLD encompass a range of conditions. This can include simple steatosis (fatty infiltration of the liver tissue) and cirrhosis (build-up of scar tissue in the liver.) In this article, we’ll break down what causes fatty liver disease and the symptoms that accompany it. We’ll also discuss some of the biggest risk factors for acquiring these diseases.

Understanding Fatty Liver Disease: Causes and Risks

AFLD is classified as chronic alcoholism or the abuse of other potentially toxic substances. This can lead to three liver conditions of increasing severity: alcoholic fatty liver (sometimes called simple steatosis), alcoholic hepatitis, and alcohol-related cirrhosis. Alcoholic fatty liver is the least serious of these conditions and can be reversed by abstaining from alcohol.

NAFLD is found in people of all ages. However, it’s seen most frequently diagnosed among middle-aged people. NAFLD is more prevalent in women than men and is seen as more common in overweight individuals. Paradoxically, people who’ve had operations where large sections of their small intestine were removed, such as gastric bypass surgery, may develop NAFLD as a result of rapid weight loss.

NAFLD follows the same basic progression as AFLD but is found in people who use little or no alcohol. The exact prevalence of NAFLD is unknown. But increased levels of obesity, diabetes, and pre-diabetic conditions in industrialized countries have led to more cases of NAFLD.

NAFLD tends to occur most in people who carry excess weight around their waist. Medical investigators believe it’s because abdominal obesity is a risk factor for other conditions like insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides are also commonly seen in people with this condition. Some health experts estimate that NAFLD may affect up to one-third of all American adults.

How To Recognize NAFLD Symptoms

Early-stage NAFLD rarely causes any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they tend to be nonspecific. Patients may feel mildly unwell, fatigued, or discomfort in the upper right quadrant of their abdomen. Patients typically don’t learn they have early-stage NAFLD until a blood test for an unrelated condition reveals abnormal liver function.

It’s estimated that 10-20% of all American adults have early-stage NAFLD and 2% to 5% have non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH.) Approximately 20% of patients with NASH are at risk for developing cirrhosis. This significantly increases their risk of dying from end-stage liver disease.

What Are the Biggest Risk Factors for NAFLD?

Excess Weight and Obesity. Your risk increases with every pound of excess weight. More than 80% of people with NASH are obese.

Type 2 Diabetes. Insulin resistance and high blood sugar can damage many organs in your body, including your liver. Up to 66% of people diagnosed with NAFLD also have type 2 diabetes.

Hyperlipidemia. High blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels are found in as much as 80% of people with NASH.

Intestinal Bypass Surgeries. These types of surgeries, including gastric bypass, can lead to rapid weight loss. And as we’ve mentioned above, this can paradoxically trigger NAFLD.

Medications. The side effects of some medications include liver damage, which may result in NAFLD.

Other Liver Diseases. Diseases and conditions that cause high levels of copper to accumulate in your liver can lead to NAFLD. This includes glycogen storage disease and Wilson’s disease.

How To Treat the Progression of NAFLD

For some people, NAFLD can remain stable for years. If left untreated, it may progress to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. This is characterized by generalized inflammation of the liver tissue and some fibrous tissue development.

NAFLD can eventually transition into full-blown cirrhosis. This causes fibrous tissue to replace much of the functional liver tissue. What triggers the progression from early NAFLD to these more serious liver diseases is unclear. Medical researchers believe that some type of secondary assault on the liver may be a catalyst.

Initial treatment of NAFLD includes weight loss, exercise, improved diabetes control, and the use of cholesterol-lowering medications. If you are diagnosed with NAFLD, you must follow a treatment plan to prevent further liver damage and death.

Researchers suspect there may be a genetic component to NAFLD. They are conducting studies to determine if genes play a role in the development of NAFLD. Or if genes influence how fast and far the disease progresses. Hopefully, research will lead to better treatments for this condition.

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