Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common liver disease in the U.S., affecting 80-100 million people. While NAFLD doesn’t necessarily cause problems itself, it does significantly increase your chances of serious illnesses including liver failure and cancer. The good news is that you can make positive changes in your diet and activity that greatly curb the effects of NAFLD or prevent it altogether. It is important to know the risks and to take steps to lower them. It’s not over yet!
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) happens because excess fat is stored in the liver that isn’t caused by alcohol. This is a common condition, affecting as many as 40% of adults in the U.S. For most of these people, their NAFLD is considered simple in that there is fat in the liver but no inflammation or cell damage. However, for 25% of the people with NAFLD, their fatty livers will develop into non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) where the liver cells are damaged and the liver is inflamed—also known as hepatitis. All types of NAFLD are most common in people with obesity and obesity-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and/or high triglycerides. In fact, the percentage of obese people who also have NAFLD is nearly 90%, so there is definitely a strong connection between the two. Anyone can get NAFLD, but it is more common in women, people over age 55, and in Hispanics.
Risks from NAFLD
Obesity is commonly listed among risk factors for various cancers. Interestingly, a study presented at The Liver Meeting 2018 showed that the increased risk of cancer is almost solely tied to NAFLD rather than to obesity alone. In the study, the patients who were obese with NAFLD carried a substantially higher instance of cancer than people who were obese without NAFLD. Additionally, people with NAFLD were 91% more likely than the general population to get cancer. This was especially true in gastrointestinal cancers such as liver, pancreatic, colon, and stomach. The risks of these gastrointestinal cancers happened at earlier ages, and for colon cancer, the largest increase was seen in men with NAFLD.
Along with cancer, a major concern with NAFLD is cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is late-stage scarring that happens to the liver as it tries to stop the inflammation. Over time, as more inflammation continues, the scarring takes up more and more of the liver, which can cause serious complications. These possible conditions include swelling or rupturing of veins, fluid buildup in the abdomen, confusion and drowsiness, or liver failure. 20% of people with NAFLD will develop cirrhosis.
Although there is no direct cure for NAFLD, there are things you can do to help prevent the disease and reduce its severity if you do have it. After seeing the link between obesity and NAFLD, it will come as no surprise that the majority of the remedies for NAFLD are the same as those for achieving healthy weight. Diet and exercise are the main ingredients for NAFLD prevention. Eating a diet that is high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals is important. Most of these things come from plant-based foods, whole grains, and healthy fats.
To accelerate weight loss, reduce high-fat food and high-sugar food, including alcohol and carbohydrates. Find ways to stay active by introducing an exercise routine (consult your doctor first if you haven’t been exercising) and choosing active options whenever possible—park further away from the door, take the stairs, skip the restaurant and go for a walk with a friend.
If you would like more information about how NAFLD increases your risk for gastrointestinal problems, or if you need help managing your weight, schedule an appointment with Dr. Sameer Islam today. Whether you know you suffer from NAFLD or suspect you might, he can help you make a plan to reduce or prevent risks associated with this disease. You can easily request an appointment online.