By Dr. Jiang
March is Liver Health Month, which is the perfect time to bring attention to a disease that doesn’t get a lot of recognition: Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD.
The liver is an important organ in our bodies. It helps to break down fats in the foods that we eat. NAFLD is a disease where fat deposits in the liver, which can happen if we eat more fats than our bodies need to function. Fat deposits in the liver can make the liver vulnerable to damage like inflammation and scarring.
During my training, I was surprised to learn that NAFLD is the most common liver disease in Canada affecting 1 in 5 Canadians – that’s 20 per cent. Children can develop fatty liver disease too, and it can be found in children as young as two years of age.
The most common risk factor for developing NAFLD is obesity. Other risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, and rapid weight loss through starvation or stomach bypass surgery. Male gender is also a risk factor, and NAFLD can be genetic as well. Other causes of fatty liver disease can be certain medications, alcohol, or drugs.
Fat deposits in the liver usually don’t cause immediate harm, and may not always cause symptoms. Other people may feel abdominal pain, fatigue, or vague discomfort. This is why fatty liver disease, like diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, can be “silent” diseases, and a lot of people may not be aware that they have these conditions. However, if untreated, NAFLD can lead to a more severe form called Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis, or NASH. In a person with NASH, the liver becomes inflamed and can develop scarring (fibrosis), liver failure, or liver cancer.
Fatty liver disease is most commonly diagnosed on ultrasound. It can be associated with abnormal liver tests, which can indicate liver damage. A Fibroscan can be done to assess the degree of scarring. Rarely, a biopsy may be recommended to confirm the diagnosis.
Currently, there are no medications to reverse fatty liver disease. The best treatment for NAFLD is maintaining a healthy body weight and healthy lifestyle habits and managing any associated conditions like diabetes. Slow, gradual weight loss through proper nutrition and exercise to reach a healthy body weight is recommended. Eating a low carbohydrate diet and avoiding foods with added sugar or high fructose corn syrup are beneficial. Also, alcohol should be avoided. Drinking more than two cups of coffee a day may have beneficial effects.
If you want to know more about fatty liver disease, or if you want to know about your risks for developing fatty liver, I encourage you to speak to your family physician. You can also find out more about NAFLD or other liver diseases at liver.ca