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Did you know you can get liver disease without drinking alcohol?

Dr Jayshri Shah, a liver specialist tells us about non-alcohol fatty liver and how can one prevent it.

Written by Pavitra Sampath |Updated : May 21, 2014 3:48 PM IST

Liver diseaseWhen we hear the words liver cirrhosis* or liver disease we immediately think that the person must be heavy drinker. But, did you know that even those people who don't drink alcohol at all or are light drinkers can suffer from a form of liver diseases, aptly named non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). We spoke to Dr Jayshri Shah, a hepatologist (liver specialist) at Kokilaben Dhirubai Ambani Hospital about the disease and how one can prevent it.

*Liver cirrhosis refers to slowly progressing disease in which the healthy liver tissue gets scarred which will eventually prevent the liver from functioning properly.

What is non-alcoholic fatty liver?

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This simply means accumulation of excess fat in the liver. This type of liver disease is commonly seen in patients who do not consume alcohol and the main characteristic of this condition is the accumulation of fat in the patient's liver. Since a normal, healthy liver does not have any fat in it, this condition poses a unique problem for the patient, who does not indulge in drinking alcohol. (Read: Why is the liver so important?)

How does one get it?

While there are a number of causes of fatty liver; the most common cause is alcohol consumption. But other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, altered lipid profile with hypertriglyceridemia (excessive build up of triglycerides in one's blood), hypercholesterolemia (excessive build up of cholesterol in one's blood) and hypothyroidism (low production of the thyroid hormones).

Are more people suffering from the disease?

The incidences of this disease are on the rise as the risk factors that lead to this condition are becoming more prevalent. Diseases like diabetes, obesity and hypertension with increased cholesterol are conditions that are precursors to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Moreover, a rapidly changing lifestyle, lack of exercise, stress, long working hours, eating unhealthy, fatty or frozen foods are considerably increasing the amount of fat we consume. Even among children, there's a marked increase in use of computers, phones, tablets, etc. instead of playing outside like earlier. This is causing unhealthy weight gain in children. All the aforementioned factors put together results in a higher risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (Read: Top 6 natural remedies to keep your liver healthy)

What are the most common symptoms that people should look out for?

liverThis condition is usually not associated with symptoms. Invariably, a fatty liver is picked up on an ultrasound examination done as part of a routine health check. In some cases with a lot of fat accumulation, the liver gets inflamed and one may experience fullness on the right side of the abdomen along with indigestion.

What can one do once they are diagnosed?
Once diagnosed, a person should visit a liver specialist (also known as a hepatologist). The patient will need investigations to assess cause for the disease including checking their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and a test to detect an over or under active thyroid. Also, a doctor will assess the degree of damage to the liver by doing some investigative tests including blood tests, an ultrasound and in some cases even a liver biopsy. A fatty liver can lead to inflammation of the liver resulting in steatohepatitis (fatty liver disease) and then scarring in the liver. This then progresses to liver cirrhosis. Once the patient gets cirrhosis, he/she may suffer from complications such as jaundice, swelling of feet, abdomen and liver cancer. (Read: Fatty liver caused more by obesity than by alcohol now!)

Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of liver disease.

What are the steps one can take to prevent the condition?

It's fairly simple to prevent this condition just live a healthy lifestyle. Maintain a healthy diet, and if in doubt, one can even visit a dietician to help them eat healthy and make better food choices. Exercise regularly and avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. Another important factor is to control and treat the underlying risk factors. So, if you suffer from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, hypothyroidism or high cholesterol they get regular check-ups done to be aware about the severity of your condition and avoid any further complications.

Lastly in the case of patients suffering from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease they should see a hepatologist regularly and assess themselves for complications like liver cirrhosis regularly. Remember prevention is always better than cure.

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