You may not think about it much, but your liver is working hard for you.
The liver is a key player in metabolizing food and eliminating waste. But if you are overweight or obese, especially around your midsection, you may be overwhelming your liver with fat cells.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) results from a buildup of fat in the liver of someone who drinks little or no alcohol. About 25 % of patients with NAFLD will go on to develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
“NAFLD, or fatty liver, may cause your liver to be enlarged, but most people with fatty liver probably won’t notice any symptoms,” says Jessica Hwang, M.D., associate professor in Internal Medicine. “NASH is much more serious. It reflects underlying cell damage, liver fibrosis or cirrhosis, and can lead to liver cancer.”
Are you at risk? Check your waistline
Researchers don’t know why some people with NAFLD develop simple fatty liver and not NASH. People with NAFLD are more likely to develop NASH if they have one or more of the following:
- Obesity (BMI of 30 or greater). This is especially true if you carry your weight around the abdomen.
- Type 2 diabetes
- High fat content in the blood. That means high levels of triglycerides and poor cholesterol levels.
- Metabolic syndrome, or one or more of the conditions associated with metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome occurs when you have three or more of the following conditions: obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; high triglyceride levels; poor cholesterol levels; and high blood glucose levels.
What are the symptoms of NAFLD?
Up to 25 percent of Americans have NAFLD. But the disease has few symptoms and it’s tough to diagnosis. Some patients with NAFLD have elevated liver enzymes. More tests can confirm if you have NAFLD. Imaging studies of the liver such as ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may show fatty liver, and special techniques may indicate fibrosis and cirrhosis.
“There are no screening recommendations for NAFLD or NASH. If you have metabolic syndrome or one of the conditions associated with metabolic syndrome, talk to you doctor about NAFLD and NASH,” says Hwang.
Take steps to reduce your risk of NAFLD
There is no medication that can prevent or reverse NAFLD. The healthy lifestyle choices that reduce your overall cancer risk will also reduce your risk for the disease.
“In most cases, NAFLD is preventable through healthy lifestyle choices,” says Hwang. You can take the following steps to reduce your risk of developing liver disease and liver cancer:
Maintain a healthy weight. Getting to and staying a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk for developing fatty liver.
Eat a healthy, plant-based diet. Fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Fill the remaining third with lean protein. Limit the amount of high-fat and high-sugar foods you eat.
Stay physically active. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
You can take additional steps to reduce your risk for liver disease and improve your overall health. “It’s important to stop smoking and limit alcohol use,” says Hwang.