Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Last Updated September 2020 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a buildup of fat in the liver. It is a common condition. NAFLD can be harmless, but sometimes it may cause the liver to swell. Over time, this swelling can cause scarring in your liver (cirrhosis). The more scarring your liver has, the worse it functions.

Symptoms of NALFD?

Many people do not have any symptoms of NAFLD. If you have NAFLD, you may feel fullness or pain in the middle or upper right side of the abdomen. You may feel extremely tired. Your belly may be swollen. You may have yellowing of your skin and eyes.

If your NAFLD has progressed to cirrhosis, you may have more serious symptoms including fluid retention, internal bleeding, and mental confusion.

What causes nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes NAFLD. They do know that NAFLD is linked to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your body doesn’t respond well to insulin. This makes it more difficult for your body to regulate blood sugar.

It is not caused by drinking alcohol.

How is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease diagnosed?

To diagnose NAFLD, your doctor may check your blood and order a scan of your liver. If your doctor thinks you may have a more severe liver disease, you may need a liver biopsy. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a needle through your skin and removes a small piece of tissue from your liver. This tissue is looked at under a microscope to check for signs of severe liver disease.

Can nonalcoholic fatty liver disease be prevented or avoided?

A wide range of things can increase your risk of NAFLD, including certain medicines and genetic disorders. The most common risk factors for NAFLD are obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels.

NAFLD treatment

People who have NAFLD usually do not need treatment. The most important thing is to focus on what has caused your NAFLD. Losing weight gradually (1 to 2 pounds per week) may reduce the amount of fat in your liver. However, losing weight quickly may make NAFLD worse. Ask your doctor for advice on how to lose weight in a safe and healthy way. If your cholesterol and blood sugar levels are high, your doctor may give you medicine to lower them. If a medicine you take is causing your NAFLD, your doctor may consider switching you to a different medicine.

Living with NAFLD

For most people, NAFLD is harmless and does not cause serious health problems. NAFLD usually does not affect how well the liver works. However, in rare cases, NAFLD may stop the liver from working as it should. No one can tell for sure who will have liver problems from NAFLD. It is more likely to happen in people who have diabetes or who are very overweight.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What is the best treatment for me?
  • What complications can I expect?
  • What changes should I make to my diet?
  • What exercises are good for me?
  • Are there any medicines I should take?
  • Will I have any liver damage?
  • How quickly should I lose weight?
  • What is causing my nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?
  • Should I stop drinking alcohol?
  • Are there any medicines I should avoid taking?