SAN DIEGO – When it comes to metabolic and endocrine health, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the furthest thing from a nonissue – it’s “a harbinger of deadly dysmetabolism,” said Christine Kessler, MN, ANP-BC, CNS, BC-ADM, FAANP, a nurse practitioner and founder of Metabolic Medicine Associates, King George, Va.
“I chase it, I follow it, I worry about it. Never look at it again as a benign thing,” Ms. Kessler said in a presentation at the Metabolic & Endocrine Disease Summit by Global Academy for Medical Education. “It’s the most common chronic liver disease in the United States – move over, hep C ... and it’ll be the number one cause of liver transplant within 20 years.”
But the news isn’t all grim: NAFLD can be reversible, because the liver is one organ that can “take a licking and keep on ticking,” she said.
An estimated 30%-40% of adults in the United States have NAFLD, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The most severe form of the disease, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), causes liver cell damage and affects an estimated 3%-12% of adults.
Why worry about NAFLD? Because it can boost cardiovascular risk (especially in conjunction with metabolic syndrome) and the risk for liver cancer, said Ms. Kessler.
Among the risk factors for NAFLD are obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, and many others, including medications such as methotrexate, corticosteroids, and tetracyclines. Men, and Latino and Asian individuals are especially vulnerable, whereas black individuals may have protection against it.
Researchers are exploring the possibility that NAFLD is a “multihit” condition that is linked to multiple causes, possibly including overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, Ms. Kessler noted. It is not clear, however, whether regulation of gut microbiota would be helpful in preventing the condition.
Ms. Kessler urged her colleagues to consider workups in the following situations: when an incidental finding is noticed during imaging, when liver enzymes are abnormal (although they can misleadingly appear normal), and when there are overt symptoms of liver diseases. Causes such as alcohol use, medications, and hepatitis must first be ruled out, she said, and patients should be referred to a gastroenterologist if NAFLD is confirmed.
In regard to treatment, weight and diet control are crucial because they can have a significant impact in a patient with NAFLD. “You don’t come down with NAFLD, and then NASH, and then cirrhosis,” she explained. “It goes back and forth. You can go from normal liver to fatty liver, and back to normal. We’ve all seen it.”
Reduce weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar, she said, “and you’ll see NASH go to fatty liver, and fatty liver go over to normal. If you can have someone lose between 9% and 10% of their weight, you can turn around NASH. This is huge.”
As for medications, she said, “there is no one drug for fatty liver disease.” No medication has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of NAFLD or NASH, but there are several treatments that seem to be helpful, she said.
They include statins, though not for patients with decompensated cirrhosis, and some of the diabetes drugs –(Actos; to treat steatohepatitis in patients with or without type 2 diabetes who have biopsy-proven NASH); (only in patients with diabetes); and the glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists.
Also included among the therapies are vitamin E 800 IU/day and omega-3 fatty acids for patients who have a high levels of triglycerides, as well as lower-dose vitamin E (600 IU/day) and vitamin C (500 mg/day), which are best when used with lifestyle changes; increased choline intake – which supports liver health in menopausal women – from foods such as eggs; and milk thistle, which helps decrease liver inflammation.
Patients without chronic liver disease may find another helpful preventive tool on the shelves of their local liquor store: red wine, but with moderation, Ms. Kessler cautioned.
Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Ms. Kessler disclosed relationships as an adviser and speaker with Novo Nordisk, and with Clarion Brands.