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NAFLD is a common disease of the liver. It occurs when there is too much fat in the liver. If NAFLD is severe, it can cause liver damage similar to the damage caused by drinking too much alcohol. However, NAFLD is not caused by drinking alcohol. This sheet tells you more about NAFLD and how it can be managed.
The liver is an organ located in the upper right side of the abdomen. It has many important functions. These include:
Metabolizing proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
Making a substance called bile that helps break down fats
Storing and releasing sugar (glucose) into the blood to give the body energy
Removing toxins from the blood
Helping with the clotting of blood
A healthy liver may contain some fat. But if too much fat builds up in the liver, this causes NAFLD. NAFLD can be mild, causing fatty liver. Or it can be more severe, causing non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) or cirrhosis. With fatty liver, the liver simply contains more fat than normal. This extra fat usually causes no damage to the liver. With NASH, the fatty liver becomes inflamed over time. NASH is serious because it can lead to hardening and early scarring of the liver (fibrosis). If the fibrosis worsens, it can cause complete scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This can eventually cause liver failure or liver cancer.
The cause of NAFLD is unknown. But certain risk factors make the problem more likely to occur. These include:
Prediabetes or diabetes
High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (types of fat found in the blood)
Exposure to certain medications or toxins
Most people with NAFLD have no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include:
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Abdominal pain and cramping
Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice); dark urine, or light-colored stools
Swelling in the abdomen or legs
The doctor may suspect you have NAFLD if routine blood tests show high levels of liver enzymes. This means that a liver problem is likely. One or more imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI scan, may be done to check for NAFLD. A liver biopsy may also be done. During this test, a hollow needle is used to remove a tiny amount of tissue from the liver. This tissue is then studied in a lab. This test can detect signs of damage involving liver tissue. It can also help determine the cause of the damage and tell the difference between fatty liver and NASH.
Treatment for NAFLD varies for each person. Your doctor will monitor your health and treat any symptoms or underlying health problems you have. Your doctor will also work with you to control your risk factors so that damage to your liver is less likely. Your plan may include:
Losing excess weight
Getting regular exercise
Controlling diabetes and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels
Taking medications and vitamins as prescribed by your doctor
Avoiding drinking alcohol
Eating a healthy and balanced diet
If NAFLD is caught early, it can be managed to help reverse the liver damage. If NAFLD has progressed to NASH or cirrhosis, you will likely need more aggressive treatment. Your doctor will discuss further treatment options with you as needed.