What is fatty liver disease?



The most common liver disorder in the U.S., nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an accumulation of excess fat in liver cells, taking up 5-10 percent of the entire organ. Typically, consuming too much alcohol is a primary cause of fat build-up in the liver, but those with NAFLD may not drink much alcohol at all. Approximately 30 percent of the entire U.S. population has this disease, and Dr. Harmeet Malhi, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic, says it is the leading cause of chronic liver disease worldwide. Though it causes no permanent damage, NAFLD can progress to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which can result in cirrhosis (irreversible scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

NAFLD is asymptomatic, meaning it usually has no physical symptoms. However, you should consult your doctor if you have any of the following risk factors. Doctors may use a variety of factors to diagnose the condition, such as blood tests, an abdominal ultrasound scan or a liver biopsy. Make sure you avoid these habits that are secretly hurting your liver.

You tend to be a binge eater


An early sign of liver disease is binge eating, either feeling hungry all the time or having an intense craving for sugars. These eating habits only add to the fat that is already accumulating in your liver. “We have to be cognizant of what we’re eating because we are what we eat,” Dr. Loomba says. “And if we consume excess calories, especially calories that are sugar-rich or carbohydrate-rich, over a long period of time, it will have negative consequences.” He recommends keeping a food log of what you eat every day to track your sugar and fat intake. This will help you to see if your eating habits are something you need to watch out for. These are signs that your liver is in big trouble.

You store weight in your belly


People who are overweight are at an increased risk of NAFLD. Since the obesity rate in Americans is on the rise—more than one-third of the population is obese—the threat is more prevalent than ever. Dr. Rohit Loomba, director of the NAFLD Research Center at the University of California at San Diego, cautions that visceral fat (the kind stored in your abdomen that gives you a big gut) is a big concern. “As the body mass index goes up and people go from a BMI of 30 to 35 to 40, the prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease starts going up,” he says. “We’re finding that the visceral fat correlates well with liver fat especially in middle-aged and younger adults.” Here are 23 tips to trim belly fat (without even exercising).

You’ve got high cholesterol


High blood fat levels, either triglycerides or LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, can signal that there’s too much fat in your liver. “The cholesterol that we measure in the blood is predominantly a product of what is coming out of the liver,” Dr. Loomba explains. The liver makes cholesterol on its own and circulates it into your bloodstream, but when we eat foods high in saturated and trans fats, it releases more fat and raises cholesterol levels. Have your doctor check your cholesterol levels often to make sure it’s not a fatty liver symptom that you need to watch out for. These are the worst eating habits for high cholesterol.

You’ve been diagnosed with diabetes


If you have diabetes, Dr. Loomba says getting tested for NAFLD should be a major medical priority. In a study published this year, he and other UC-San Diego researchers tested 100 type 2 diabetics who had no other fatty liver symptoms. All of them received an MRI of their livers. The results showed that 65 percent of the participants had NAFLD and didn’t even know it. Here’s how to avoid 12 other major diabetes complications.

Your blood pressure is through the roof


When German researchers analyzed data from over 3,000 individuals, they found that those with NAFLD were three times more likely to have hypertension than those who didn’t have the disease. Monitoring blood pressure and maintaining heart health, in general, is especially important if you have or think you may have liver disease. Cardiovascular problems are the leading cause of death in people who have NAFLD, says Dr. Malhi.  These foods can help lower high blood pressure naturally.

Another family member has fatty liver disease


Dr. Loomba and his colleagues recently conducted a study of 25 families who have a history of NASH cirrhosis. They found that the risk of this advanced stage of NAFLD is 13 times higher if a family member had the disease as well. This is an ongoing study, but other familial research has evidence that some people may be genetically predisposed to this disease as well. You might have this “silent” liver disease and not even know it.

You’re always tired


NAFLD doesn’t have any physical symptoms, which makes it virtually impossible to identify without blood tests or a liver biopsy. However, once it progresses to cirrhosis, you may start to experience common symptoms like fatigue and weakness. Since the effects of cirrhosis are permanent and could lead to cancer, it’s important to visit your doctor right away if you develop these fatty liver symptoms and have any of the previous risk factors. These are other medical reasons you could be tired all the time.

You have pain in the upper right abdomen


This is also a symptom that won’t show up until cirrhosis appears. Fluid may start to gather in the abdomen; if the water gets infected, you experience abdominal pain. Another tummy issue that results from cirrhosis is a loss of appetite. (Here’s how to tell that might be a sign of liver cancer instead.)

You’re experiencing confusion


Confusion can also be a sign of more serious liver problems. Since the liver is not able to metabolize properly, the toxins it normally expels get into the bloodstream and can move into the brain. If your confusion worsens or you become disoriented, contact your doctor immediately.


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