By Lauren Thayer from In The Cloud Copy
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD is a term used to describe a range of conditions in which a patient’s liver has a build-up of fat. These patients typically are overweight or obese and are not heavy drinkers (and as such, the liver disease is not attributed to alcohol intake).
Some patients affected by NAFLD will go on to develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH. NASH is a more aggressive form of fatty liver disease in which the liver experiences inflammation and eventually scarring (also called cirrhosis) and liver failure. The damage done to the liver when a patient develops NASH is similar to the damage seen in individuals with heavy alcohol consumption.
Causes and Complications of NAFLD and NASH
The causes of these diseases are not entirely known, but both NASH and NAFLD can be linked to obesity or being overweight, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and high levels of fats in the blood.
Any one of these conditions or a combination of them can lead to an increase of fat in the liver which can eventually lead to either NAFLD or NASH.
Risk for developing these conditions can increase, based on a number of different factors, including high cholesterol, metabolic syndromes, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypothyroidism, and hypopituitarism.
The main complication that one should worry about with NAFLD and NASH is the development of cirrhosis, which scarring in the liver. If cirrhosis is not stopped, it can lead to ascites (fluid build-up in the abdomen), esophageal varices (swelling of veins in the esophagus) which can eventually rupture and bleed, hepatic encephalopathy (which includes confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech), liver cancer, and eventually, end-stage liver failure in which the liver stops functioning entirely. Click here to learn more about NASH.
Sex Differences in NAFLD and NASH
Much research has been conducted and continues to be done to understand the differences that sex play on the risk and progression of both NAFLD and NASH. A recent study highlights these differences, noting that women seem to have a lower risk of the development of NAFLD, but their risk for developing further in NASH and advanced fibrosis is higher than that of men.
Age also appears to play an important role in the development and risks involved with this disease. The study also found that women with an age of at least 50 years or older had an increased risk for NASH and advanced fibrosis, while differences across sex in younger populations were reduced.
This study gives providers information needed when treating this disease. In women with established NAFLD, they should be further evaluated for NASH and fibrosis just as men are, if not more vigorously.
Prevention of NAFLD
Prevention is key in this disease. If you can prevent the disease from occurring, then you needn’t worry about the complications and advancements that can come with it.
To reduce the risk of developing NAFLD, one should eat a healthy diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.
Maintaining a healthy weight is key to prevention of NAFLD. If you’re overweight or obese, reducing your caloric intake and exercising can help to decrease your weight and decrease your chances of developing NAFLD. If you are already at a healthy weight, maintain that with diet and exercise.
Finally, exercise most days of each week. If you do not regularly exercise, you should be cleared by a doctor prior to doing so.
NAFLD doesn’t have to be a death sentence. With appropriate preventative care, it can be avoided altogether. With early detection and treatment, there are options to slow or halt the progression of the disease. Most of these revolve around leading a healthy lifestyle.
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