Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, affects up to 25 percent of the population, according to the American Liver Foundation. And yet many people don’t even know exactly what it is—much less how to find out if they have it.
Quite simply, NAFLD is the buildup of extra fat in the liver cells. Unlike alcohol-related liver disease, it is not caused by drinking too much, although both conditions can cause the liver to swell, which can lead to scarring (cirrhosis) over time and even liver cancer or liver failure.
NAFLD is seen most often in people who are overweight or have diabetes, insulin resistance, high cholesterol or high triglycerides. But it also can develop much more infrequently in people with none of those conditions, like marathon runner Nick Giordano, who was diagnosed with NAFLD as a young man shortly after getting married.
What are the signs of fatty liver disease? Sometimes, there aren’t any symptoms, but when they do appear they include:
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Swelling of the legs
- Confusion or trouble concentrating
- Increased liver size
- Dark patches on the skin under your arms or on your neck
That’s a pretty broad list of symptoms. NAFLD is usually suspected after elevated liver enzyme levels are found during routine physicals. It then can be confirmed during an ultrasound or with a biopsy.
There are no drugs available—yet—to treat the condition, but there is a lot you can do to improve the health of your liver.
One of the biggest is to lose weight. Obesity is often linked to NAFLD, and a more serious form of NAFLD called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), can be found in more than 25 percent of the obese population. NASH can cause considerable damage, which can lead to cirrhosis.
Exercise is also effective. According to one 2015 study, people with the disease who hit the gym for resistance training three times a week reduced their liver fat levels.
Although NAFLD isn’t caused by drinking, alcohol can make the condition worse and should be limited or avoided. People with the condition also should check with their doctor about any medications or supplements they take on a regular basis.
In general, you’ll want to do all the things you should be doing anyway to maintain good health: Eat lots of fruits and veggies, avoid processed foods and excess sugar, watch your weight, control your blood sugar (if you’re diabetic) and get lots of exercise, including resistance training.
That’s exactly what Giordano, the marathon runner, did. Although he was only a few pounds overweight, Nick began eating healthier and shed those pounds. He also gave up even casual alcohol consumption. When he returned to his doctor a few months later, his liver enzymes had significantly decreased. Nick now works to raise money—and awareness—for NAFLD.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve had a routine physical, check our physician directory to find a doctor, especially if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above. Knowing what challenges you may face is the first step toward improving your health and well-being.