We are only provided with one liver when we are born, therefore liver health is something that everyone should be vigilant in protecting. Except that most people never consider the health of their liver until they have to. This applies to everyone, not only those who partake in alcohol and drugs. Those who live on an unhealthy diet can damage their livers as badly as a raging alcoholic will. Have you ever heard the term nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?
What is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an umbrella term for liver conditions that can affect those who do drink very little and even those who do not consume alcohol at all. This condition occurs when one has too much fat stored within their liver cells. This form of chronic liver disease affects approximately one fourth of the population in America, and is becoming more common in western societies around the world.
This condition is usually seen in people who are overweight or obese.
Early-stage NAFLD does not usually cause any harm, but it can lead to serious liver damage, including cirrhosis, if it gets worse. But what is a bit disturbing is that NAFLD usually causes no signs and symptoms. But when it does cause symptoms, they may include fatigue and pain or discomfort in the upper right abdomen.
Having high levels of fat in your liver is also associated with an increased risk of serious health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. If you already have diabetes, NAFLD increases your chance of developing heart problems. If detected and managed at an early stage, it’s possible to stop NAFLD getting worse and reduce the amount of fat in your liver. (1)
If you do not get it under control, you are instore for what can turn into a miserable demise at some point as it can develop into severe cirrhosis and your liver stops working properly. Some individuals with NAFLD can develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) which is an aggressive form of fatty liver disease, marked by liver inflammation and may progress to advanced scarring (cirrhosis) and liver failure. This damage is similar to the damage caused by heavy alcohol use. When this occurs, you may need to be put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
It is said that experts don’t know exactly why some people accumulate fat in the liver while others do not. But they do know that the following conditions are contributing factors which can all be linked back to poor nutrition.
- Overweight or obesity
- Insulin resistance, in which your cells don’t take up sugar in response to the hormone insulin
- High blood sugar (hyperglycemia), indicating prediabetes or type 2 diabetes
- High levels of fats, particularly triglycerides, in the blood
Unfortunately, it is difficult for doctors to distinguish NAFLD from NASH without further testing.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle is the main way of managing NAFLD.
For example, it can help to:
- lose weight – you should aim for a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 (use the BMI calculator to work out your BMI); losing more than 10% of your weight can remove some fat from the liver and improve NASH if you have it
- eat a healthy diet – try to have a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates, but low in fat, sugar and salt; eating smaller portions of food can help, too
- have water instead of sweet drinks
- exercise regularly – aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking or cycling, a week; all types of exercise can help improve NAFLD, even if you do not lose weight
- stop smoking – if you smoke, stopping can help reduce your risk of problems such as heart attacks and strokes (1)
Complications of NAFLD and NASH
The main complication of NAFLD and NASH is cirrhosis, which is late-stage scarring in the liver. Cirrhosis occurs in response to liver injury, such as the inflammation in NASH. As the liver tries to halt inflammation, it produces areas of scarring (fibrosis). With continued inflammation, fibrosis spreads to take up more and more liver tissue.
If the process isn’t interrupted, cirrhosis can lead to:
- Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling of veins in your esophagus (esophageal varices), which can rupture and bleed
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Liver cancer
- End-stage liver failure, which means the liver has stopped functioning
Between 5% and 12% of people with NASH will progress to cirrhosis, do you want to become one of the unlucky few? (2)