Dangerous and stealthy, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is on the rise, but is reversible with weight loss and exercise

Many Kentuckians and other Americans are walking around with a liver disease that has the potential of progressing to cirrhosis, which can then lead to liver failure, and don’t even know it, according to a Houston Methodist Hospital news release.

It’s called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. NAFLD is caused by the buildup of extra fat in the liver that is not caused by alcohol. And while it is normal for the liver to contain some fat, if more than 5 to 10 percent of its total weight is fat, it is considered a fatty liver.

“Data has shown that nearly 30 million Americans have NAFLD. Many times it is missed until the person’s liver enzyme levels are high,” Dr. Howard Monsour, chief of hepatology at Houston Methodist Hospital, said in the release.

Alcohol, drugs, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes, which are more common in Kentucky than the rest of the nation, can all be causes of fatty liver. The release notes that those with Metabolic Syndrome often also have fatty liver.

Metabolic Syndrome is a combination of health conditions in one person that include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, increased fasting glucose levels and abnormal cholesterol levels. More than one-third of adults in the U.S. suffer from this syndrome.

Fatty liver in its early stages is harmless, but it can advance to a condition called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), then to cirrhosis. But the good news is, if it is caught early, it is a totally reversible condition through slow, methodical weight loss and exercise.

“Much like Type 2 diabetes, NAFLD can be cured with proper diet and exercise,” Monsour said. “If you lose 12 percent of your current weight, no matter how much you weigh, you can eliminate fat from your liver.”

Most people with fatty liver or NASH have no symptoms, but some have fatigue, weakness and loss of appetite, or pain in the center or right upper part of the belly. “These symptoms might also get worse after heavy drinking,” the release notes.

Those with fatty liver shouldn’t overindulge in food or alcohol because it can make the condition worse, “and possibly lead them straight to a heart disease and/or liver failure,” the release warns.

Fatty liver is the leading cause of chronic liver disease and is the third most common reason for liver transplants in the U.S., according to the American Liver Foundation. Between five and 20 percent of people with fatty liver will develop serious liver disease, according to the release

“The key is to catch it early and many times it may not be discovered until a routine checkup,” Monsour said. “If you start to experience symptoms, see a doctor as soon as you can. Letting it go without evaluation can lead to a very difficult, unhealthy life.”

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