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Subject: Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
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A spectrum of fatty liver diseases not due to excess alcohol consumption ranging from nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL), to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), to cirrhosis with hepatocyte injury with/without fibrosis
Leading cause of chronic liver disease; implicated in up to 90% of patients with asymptomatic, mild aminotransferase elevation not caused by alcohol, viral hepatitis, or medications
Reversible condition in which large vacuoles of triglyceride fat accumulate in hepatocytes
Liver biopsy: fatty deposits in >5% of cells without hepatocellular injury (no hepatocyte ballooning, no necrosis, no fibrosis)
Alanine aminotransferase/aspartate aminotransferase (ALT/AST) enzymes usually normal but may be elevated, rarely >3 to 4 times upper limit normal (ULN)
Minimal risk of progressing to cirrhosis or liver failure
NASH: progressive form of NAFL (1)
Liver biopsy: fatty deposits in >5% of cells with hepatocellulary injury (ballooning, acute/chronic inflammation, ± fibrosis)
ALT and AST elevated, generally <3 to 4 times ULN
30% with NASH may progress to fibrosis over 5 years, may progress to cirrhosis, liver failure, and rarely hepatocellular cancer
Presence of cirrhosis with current or previous histologic evidence of steatosis or steatohepatitis
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): most common chronic liver disease in industrialized Western countries; usually benign, asymptomatic
Predicted to become the most frequent indication for liver transplantation by 2030 (2)
NASH may be symptomatic with progressive inflammation and fibrosis.
Predominant age: 40s to 50s; can occur in children
Predominant sex: male > female (slight)
United States estimate: 10–40%
Worldwide: 6–33%, median 25% (1)
Present in 58–74% of obese persons (BMI >30) and 90% of morbidly obese persons (BMI >39) (1)
Among individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus, rate of 69–87%; in patients with dyslipidemia, rate of 50% (1)
NAFLD: excessive triglyceride accumulation in the liver and impaired ability to remove fatty acids
NASH: multiple hit theory that inflammation precedes steatosis in environmentally and genetically predisposed people. Multiple insults, including insulin resistance, hormones from adipose tissue, nutritional factors, endotoxins released by the gut microbiota, oxidative stress damage, and genetic factors. These “hits” act on liver parenchymal cells via toll-like receptors to lead to the progression of NASH (3).
Obesity (BMI >30), visceral obesity (waist circumference >102 cm for men or >88 cm for women), hypertension, dyslipidemia, high serum triglycerides and low serum high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, metabolic syndrome
Type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease (2)
Possible associations with hypothyroidism, hypopituitarism, hypogonadism, obstructive sleep apnea, pancreaticoduodenal resection, osteoporosis, psoriasis, and polycystic ovary syndrome (2)
Increasing age associated with increased prevalence, severity, advanced fibrosis, and mortality
High fructose intake linked to intestinal dysbiosis and metabolic stress (4)
Protein–calorie malnutrition; total parenteral nutrition (TPN) >6 weeks
Severe weight loss (starvation, bariatric surgery)
Organic solvent exposure (e.g., chlorinated hydrocarbons, toluene); vinyl chloride; hypoglycin A
Gene for hemochromatosis/other conditions with increased iron stores
Drugs: tetracycline, glucocorticoids, tamoxifen, methotrexate, amiodarone, antiretroviral agents for HIV, valproic acid, fialuridine, many chemotherapy regimens, and nucleoside analogues
Acute fatty liver of pregnancy: rare but serious complication in 3rd trimester. 50% of cases are associated with preeclampsia.
Symptoms: nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, right upper quadrant or epigastric pain, jaundice
Elevated ALT and AST >300 IU/L but usually <1,000 IU/L; elevated bilirubin
Liver biopsy confirms diagnosis (do not delay treatment for biopsy).
Early recognition and prompt delivery is key.
Recurrence is rare.
Increasing prevalence of NAFLD among children. Parallels rise in pediatric obesity, with prevalence of 9.6% (1).
Reports of NAFLD as early as age 2 years and NASH-related cirrhosis as early as age 8 years.
Treat with intensive lifestyle modification.
Vitamin E of possible benefit.
Reye syndrome: fatty liver syndrome with encephalopathy usually following viral illness
Vomiting with dehydration
Confusion, progressive CNS damage
Hepatomegaly with extensive fatty vacuolization
Etiology unknown; viral URIs and drugs (especially salicylates) have been implicated; mortality rate: 50%
Treat with mannitol, IV glucose, and FFP.
Avoid excess alcohol: ≤2 units per day (men); ≤1 unit per day (women)
Maintain appropriate BMI
Prevention and optimal management of diabetes
Avoid hepatotoxic medications
HAV and HBV vaccination if not immune
Pneumococcal and annual influenza vaccinations
Routine screening not recommended.
Consider NAFLD in patients with asymptomatic aminotransferase elevations (1)[A].
Can occur with normal AST/ALT levels (1)[A]
NAFLD has no distinguishing historical/lab features to distinguish from other chronic liver disorders.
Index of suspicion is higher with risk factors such as metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, or obesity.
May present as cryptogenic cirrhosis
Noninvasive biomarkers of steatosis/fibrosis are not sufficiently reliable; no validated test yet available.
Liver biopsy is the definitive diagnostic test but should only be considered if results will change management.
Possible fatigue and/or abdominal fullness
Vague right upper quadrant pain
History of medications, alcohol use, family history
Mild to marked hepatomegaly
In advanced cases: cutaneous stigmata of chronic liver disease or portal hypertension (e.g., palmar erythema, spider angiomata, ascites)
Alcoholic fatty liver
Drug- or toxin-induced hepatitis
Metabolic liver disease
Muscle disease, if nonhepatic cause of elevated enzymes is possible
ALT and AST may be elevated.
Nonalcoholic, usually AST/ALT >1
If alcohol induced, usually AST/ALT ≥2
Nonspecific enzyme abnormalities may exist or may be normal with advanced cirrhosis (1,3).
Level of enzyme elevation does NOT correlate with degree of fibrosis (1).
Serum ferritin (1.5 times normal), alkaline phosphatase (2 to 3 times normal), and total/direct bilirubin may be elevated (1).
Severity and chronicity are characterized by defects in ability to produce plasma proteins (serum albumin, PT) and thrombocytopenia—marker for cirrhosis (1).
Lipids abnormalities are common and include elevated cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and triglyceride and decreased HDL (1).
Biomarkers of inflammation, increased oxidative stress, or hepatocyte apoptosis such as leptin, adiponectin, CRP, serum caspase, and cytokeratin 18 may help differentiate NASH from NAFLD (1)[B].
Serologic studies to exclude other causes of liver disease (celiac, α1-antitrypsin, iron, copper, Hepatitis A IgG, Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (HBsAg), Hepatitis B Surface Antibody, Hepatitis B core Antibody, Hepatitis C Antibody, anti-smooth muscle antibody, ANA, serum gammaglobulin) (1)[B]
Ultrasound (US) is first-line imaging modality for assessing liver chemistry abnormalities: Fatty liver is hyperechoic on US. MRI/CT may also be used; NAFLD has decreased hepatic attenuation on CT (1)[B].
Other modalities can help noninvasively quantify fibrosis by estimating liver stiffness (1).
Clinical decision aids: NAFLD fibrosis score, FIB-4 index, APRI score
Serum biomarkers: Enhanced Liver Fibrosis panel, Fibrotest, Hepascore
Imaging: vibration controlled transient elastography (VCTE) or FibroScan, acoustic radiation force impulse (ARFI), magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) (5)[B]
No modality has been found to accurately distinguish and diagnose simple steatosis from steatohepatitis (5)[B].
The NAFLD activity score (NAS) is used to grade diagnosis, based on three histologic features: steatosis (0 to 3), inflammation (0 to 3), and hepatocyte ballooning (0 to 2), for score between 0 and 8. NASH is very likely with scores ≥5 (3).
Staging scale (0 to 4) is based on fibrosis (1,3).
Sustained weight loss (3–5% body weight) through lifestyle modification is most successful treatment (1,6)[A]. Weight loss for those who are overweight or obese is the only therapy that has good evidence of benefits and safety.
Bariatric surgery not proven to improve NASH (1)[B]
Aerobic exercise 3 to 5 times per week for 20 to 45 minutes with reduced calorie intake/diet modifications (1)[B]
Tight diabetes control (1,6)[B]
Treatment of metabolic syndrome—hypertension, dyslipidemia, and obesity (1,6)[B]
Avoid or limit alcohol consumption (6)[A].
Avoid hepatotoxic medications (1)[B].
Currently no effective medication treatment (1,6)[A]
Some promising agents include the following:
Thiazolidinediones (pioglitazone): improves liver histology, only use with biopsy-proven NASH (1)[B]
Vitamin E 400-800 IU daily: long-term safety concerns at high doses; only use with biopsy-proven NASH (1)[C]
GLP-1 receptor agonists, exenatide and liraglutide
Agents targeting apoptosis, fibrosis, and the gut microbiome are in early trials
Agents that have not shown benefit:
Obeticholic acid (bile acid derivative)
Annual monitoring of LFTs (1,6)[B]
Consider surveillance with US or CT scan to evaluate for disease progression (6)[B]. Improvements provide motivation for lifestyle changes.
Routine liver biopsy is not recommended but may be repeated 5 years after baseline biopsy if progression of fibrosis is suspected (1,6)[B].
Hepatic fibrosis staging is the strongest predictor for all-cause and disease-specific mortality in patients with histologically confirmed NAFLD (2)[B].
Cirrhosis develops in up to 20% of patients but may not always be present. Up to 42% of patients develop HCC without showing cirrhosis (3).
Transplantation is effective, but NASH may recur after transplantation due to ongoing risk factors.
Oseini AM, Sanyal AJ. Therapies in non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Liver Int. 2017;37(Suppl 1):97–103.
Spengler EK, Loomba R. Recommendations for diagnosis, referral for liver biopsy, and treatment of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(9):1233–1246.
Stahl EP, Dhindsa DS, Lee SK, et al. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and the heart: JACC state-of-the-art review. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019;73(8):948–963.
NAFLD is a major cause of liver disease. Spectrum ranges from NAFL to NASH, advanced fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
NAFLD is the most common chronic liver disease in children; there has been a parallel rise in childhood obesity and NAFLD.
Lifestyle changes with targeted weight loss are the cornerstones of therapy for NAFLD.
NAFLD is a common cause of asymptomatic mild serum aminotransferase elevation.
Homeless diabetic man with painful foot showing gangrene and dystrophic nails
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum. Atrophic patch present x 6 mo.
Chronic hepatitis with cirrhosis. A photomicrograph of the liver from a patient with long-standing chronic active hepatitis B shows hepatocellular nodules and chronically inflamed fibrous septa.
Chronic hepatitis with cirrhosis. A photomicrograph of the liver from a patient with long-standing chronic active hepatitis B shows hepato...
Microvesicular fatty liver. A liver biopsy specimen in a case of Reye syndrome shows small droplet fat in hepatocytes and centrally located nuclei.
Microvesicular fatty liver. A liver biopsy specimen in a case of Reye syndrome shows small droplet fat in hepatocytes and centrally locate...
Alcoholic cirrhosis. The surface of the liver displays innumerable small, regular nodules.
Alcoholic cirrhosis. A photomicrograph shows small regular nodules surrounded by uniform fibrous septa.
Cirrhosis of the liver. The consequence of chronic hepatic injury is the formation of regenerating nodules separated by bands of fibrous connective tissue (blue).
Cirrhosis of the liver. The consequence of chronic hepatic injury is the formation of regenerating nodules separated by bands of fibrous co...