Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition of extra fat buildup in the liver, is on the rise — it now affects roughly 20% to 40% of the US population. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, and is often first detected by accident when an imaging study (such as an abdominal ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI) is requested for another reason. A fatty liver may also be identified on an imaging test as a part of investigating abnormal liver blood tests. NAFLD is intimately related to conditions like diabetes and obesity. It’s also linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Understanding NAFLD and its causes, consequences, and treatment options is still a work in progress.
There are lots of medical terms related to fatty liver disease, and it can get confusing. The main medical umbrella term NAFLD refers to a fatty liver that is not related to alcohol use. NAFLD is further divided into two groups:
Distinguishing between simple fatty liver and NASH is important. Why? Because for most people, having simple fatty liver doesn’t cause sickness related to the liver, whereas those with NASH have inflammation and injury to their liver cells. This increases the risk of progression to more serious conditions like fibrosis (scarring) of the liver, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. NASH cirrhosis is expected to be the number one reason for liver transplant within the next year. Luckily, most people with NAFLD have simple fatty liver and not NASH; it is estimated that 3% to 7% of the US population has NASH.
It takes a liver biopsy to know if a person has simple fatty liver or NASH. But the possible (though infrequent) complications and cost of a liver biopsy make this impractical to do for everyone with NAFLD.
Scientists are trying to find noninvasive ways to identify who is at the greatest risk for fibrosis, and thus who should go on to have a liver biopsy. Possible approaches include biomarkers and scoring systems based on blood tests (such as the NAFLD fibrosis score and Fibrosis-4 index), as well as elastography (a technology which uses soundwaves to estimate fibrosis based on the stiffness of the liver).
If you have been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, it is important to keep your liver as healthy as possible and avoid anything that can damage your liver. Here are some important things you should do.
Unfortunately, there are no FDA-approved medications for fatty liver disease. So far, the two best drug options affirmed by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases for biopsy-proven NASH are vitamin E (an antioxidant) and pioglitazone (used to treat diabetes). However, not everyone will benefit from these treatments, and there has been some concern about safety and side effects. If you have NASH, it’s best to speak to your doctor about whether these treatments are appropriate for you, as they are not for everyone. There are more drugs in the pipeline, some with promising initial study results.
The good news is that the most effective treatment so far for fatty liver disease does not involve medications, but rather lifestyle changes. The bad news is that these are typically hard to achieve and maintain for many people. Here’s what we know helps:
Even though it can be difficult to make these lifestyle changes and lose the weight, the benefit is immense if you have fatty liver, so give it your best effort! And remember, the greatest risk for people with a fatty liver is still cardiovascular disease. Not only can some of these lifestyle changes improve or resolve your fatty liver, they will also help keep your heart healthy.