Some fat in the liver is normal, but for a large and growing group of people too much fat in the liver puts them at risk for a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
The rise in numbers of people with fatty liver disease is tied to the increase in obesity. It’s yet another reason to maintain a normal weight, but you don’t have to be obese to get it.
About 30 percent of adults and an increasing number of children now have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The abnormal accumulation of fat in their liver tissue can lead to inflammation, liver damage requiring liver transplant, cancer, and even death.
We are seeing that rates of fatty liver disease can differ by ancestry. Hispanics have higher rates of fatty liver disease than other groups.
The racial difference is unclear but part of the story may be genetic predisposition to developing the disease in combination with the right environmental triggers.
The general public may not be aware of their risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but about a decade ago the medical community recognized it as a digestive health issue to watch.
Our work right now focuses on the genetics of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Through genetics we hope to identify subtypes of the disease and develop personalized treatments.
There is no doubt genes, traits that are passed down from parent to child, play a role in glucose and lipid metabolism. Some people have trouble breaking down fat or make fat more easily than others which makes them more susceptible to fatty liver disease.
Because fatty liver is typically not painful and causes few symptoms, it is discovered mostly by accident when people are checking liver enzyme or scanning the abdomen looking for other diseases. Because of this, it can proceed to advanced stages before being detected.
Under a microscope and through body imaging fatty liver disease looks exactly like alcoholic liver disease. Unlike alcoholic liver disease however, you can get it without drinking alcohol at all. Weight gain due to consuming too many calories or lack of exercise can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in people who are already susceptible to it.
About two-thirds of people with fatty liver disease are also at risk for metablic syndrome, a leading cause of heart disease. Those who are overweight, or have been told they have problems with lipids, diabetes, high blood pressure, or metabolic disease have high odds of facing fatty liver disease.
Tips to improve your health
If you are diagnosed with fatty liver disease now, what should you do?
Lose weight. The liver is the first place that sheds fat during weight loss. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of body weight can help decrease liver inflammation and fat. Physical activity even without weight loss reduces fat in the liver.
Be a label reader. High fructose corn syrup has become a main ingredient in our food since the 1980s. It is exclusively metabolized by the liver where it turns into fat. Reducing high fructose corn syrup from your diet may be beneficial.
If you think you are at risk of fatty liver talk to your doctor and if you have it they can refer you to a specialist to further investigate its causes and possible treatment options.
Take the next steps:
- Learn more about the University of Michigan Fatty Liver Disease Clinic.
- Take advantage of MHealthy’s specialized program aimed at reducing the risk of NAFLD.
Dr. Elizabeth Speliotes is a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan Health System. She has an advanced degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health and has led research on new gene sites affecting nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Her clinical interests include obesity and its impact on gastrointestinal disease.
The University of Michigan Digestive and Liver Health services is one of the largest programs in the country, providing prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract and liver. Our 60-plus physicians are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases of the gastrointestinal system.