Have you heard of fatty liver disease? The medical name: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Shedding light on this hidden disease...
The liver: a robust, yet vulnerable internal organ
The liver is a large organ: in an average adult, it weighs roughly 1.5 kg. It is involved in a number functions essential to the body’s proper functioning, for example: digestion, synthesis (fabrication), transforming and regulating biochemical substances (e.g., bile and cholesterol), metabolizing alcohol and drugs, storing vitamins, iron, lipids, etc. This vital organ performs at least 500 complex functions!
Liver health can be threatened by a multitude of factors, especially exposure to damaging products or substances. Cirrhosis of the liver is a serious illness that significantly damages the liver and compromises its function. It is often associated with alcoholism, justifiably so, and corresponds to last-stage chronic hepatic diseases. Viruses such as hepatitis B or C, genetic and metabolic disorders or cancer, can also be at the root of liver disease.
Fatty liver disease
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (also called fatty liver disease) is characterized by an accumulation of fat in the liver. This condition is considered to be benign, particularly in the early stages, but it can progress over time: inflammation may occur, and at times, hepatic fibrosis is observed (abnormal thickening of tissue, which become fibrous). This is referred to as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the most advanced and serious form of the disease.
The exact cause is currently unknown. Although NAFLD is usually observed in people between the ages of 40 and 60, it can occur at any age, including in children over the age of 10. It is more common in women than it is in men
and is more common in industrialized countries. This can be explained in part by modern society lifestyle changes. Increasingly sedentary lifestyle, overeating and poor diet contribute to this growing public health problem.
The risk of NAFLD increases in people who:
- are overweight
- have diabetes
- have elevated blood cholesterol, and
- take certain drugs
Metabolic syndrome is another significant risk factor of NAFLD, as well as other chronic diseases. We speak of metabolic syndrome when at least three of the following characteristics are involved:
- abdominal obesity
- high blood pressure
- elevated triglyceride levels in the blood
- low levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL)
- elevated blood glucose (sugar levels in the blood)
Signs and symptoms
It can be difficult to know if you are affected by NAFLD, since this disease usually does not show any particular visible signs or symptoms. In rare cases, it causes fatigue, a feeling of malaise or abdominal discomfort. Increased liver size may sometimes be observed upon palpation by a doctor.
The presence of irregularities is often observed following blood tests or medical imaging. It is difficult to distinguish between NAFLD and alcoholic liver disease, since manifestations and lesions on the liver are similar. However, it can develop in individuals whose alcohol consumption is considered normal.
If your doctor suspects that you are affected by NAFLD, he/she will undoubtedly want you to pass some tests (blood test or other tests). In many cases, it is necessary to do a biopsy, which consists of taking a small sample of the liver tissue in order to analyze it under a microscope to determine the presence of inflammation and fibrosis tissue and confirm a diagnosis.
Prevention and treatment
The disease generally evolves very slowly over decades. However, it can lead to serious complications over time, such as cirrhosis of the liver and portal hypertension, while increasing the risk of cancer. A liver transplant may be necessary.
There is currently no known effective treatment against NAFLD. A treatment plan usually includes measures intended to eliminate causes and control risk factors, for example:
- weight loss
- dietary changes
- physical exercise
- better control of blood glucose in the case of diabetes
- decreased blood cholesterol levels, and
- discontinued use of drugs or substances involved
The benefits of these measures go well beyond improving liver health. Among other things, it reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as myocardial infarction (heart attack) and cerebrovascular accident (CVA or stroke).
Fatty liver disease is a good example of a disease reflecting a person’s lifestyle. Speak to your pharmacist for additional advice about healthy living.