Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is a condition that is characterized by excess fat storage in the liver not caused by excess alcohol consumption.
NAFLD is a leading cause of chronic liver disease in developed countries with the number of people affected increasing yearly. In the United States, about 20% of the population has NAFLD. This previously disregarded cause of liver disease increases as the obesity epidemic grows worldwide.
It starts with excess fat storage in the liver, or “simple steatosis.” This stage can be symptom free, but if recognized, can be treated effectively to avoid life-threatening complications. Left untreated, NAFLD can progress to “steatohepatitis”, with liver inflammation, and can present with enlargement of the liver, right sided abdominal pain, or elevation of liver enzymes in the blood. In severe conditions, the scarring can become irreversible, known as liver “cirrhosis”, and complications could include abdominal swelling, yellowing of the skin, or swelling of the veins in the esophagus that could rupture and bleed.
In younger populations, more men have NAFLD than women; however, this ratio shifts after menopause with women outnumbering men. The physiologic and biological reasons for this are still being studied, but it may be related to hormonal changes associated with menopause.
There is good news. Women who regularly visit their physicians and make necessary lifestyle changes are best able to stop the advancing of NAFLD. Weight loss, under the supervision of a medical professional, can reduce fat in the liver, improve overall cholesterol levels, and even prevent the development of diabetes. Maintaining a healthy weight is beneficial for many reasons and can help to prevent the development of NAFLD and its complications.