It is a condition classified as “common,” but non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) flies under the radar for most people.


The term nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is used to describe a range of liver conditions affecting people who drink little to no alcohol that impacts nearly 100 million people in the U.S. The main characteristic of NAFLD is that too much fat is stored in liver cells, but it frequently has few warning signs or symptoms in its earliest stages. Left untreated, however, NAFLD may lead to serious consequences.


“The condition is closely linked to a cluster of abnormalities called metabolic syndrome that include increased abdominal fat, poor ability to use the hormone insulin, high blood pressure and high blood levels of triglycerides,” said Rashid Khan, M.D., gastroenterologist/hepatologist with Houston Methodist Gastroenterology Associates in Baytown.


The condition may be diagnosed in people of all ages, but it is especially prevalent in people in their 40s and 50s who are at high risk of heart disease due to the presence of risk factors like obesity and type 2 diabetes.


“Fatty liver is generally benign, but the development of cirrhosis is a possible consequence,” Khan said.


Along with the potential risk of cirrhosis, Khan says NAFLD brings an increased risk of liver cancer and cardiovascular disease. There is also a link between chronic kidney disease (CKD) and research indicates that many diabetic patients eventually develop NAFLD.


While many NAFLD patients frequently experience no symptoms initially, when symptoms are present they may include enlarged liver, fatigue and pain in the upper right abdomen.


“Because symptoms may not be present, regular screenings, including blood and liver enzyme and function tests, may be effective in detecting the disease in its earliest stages,” Khan said.


The cause of the condition is difficult to determine, but Khan says lifestyle changes may play a role in preventing the development of the disease.


“Choosing a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise may be effective in lowering your risk,” Khan says. “The first line of treatment generally involves weight loss through eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, although weight-loss surgery may be an option for those who are morbidly obese.”


For more information and to schedule an appointment with a specialist at Houston Methodist Gastroenterology Associates, call 281.422.7970.