What is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?

Liver Health

Learn more about non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)

Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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What is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?

The liver is the largest internal organ, having over 500 different roles in the body.  

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Drinking too much alcohol leads to a build-up of fat in the liver. The accumulation of fat causes scarring (cirrhosis) which can impair the normal functioning of the liver.  

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Fatty tissue is still able to build up in the liver even when there is not a prolonged exposure to alcohol. A normal, healthy liver contains little, or no fat, so high levels of fat in the liver leads to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is an umbrella term which refers to the different progression stages of the disease caused by a build-up of fat in the liver.

1. Simple steatosis (fatty liver) is the mildest form of NAFLD and is characterised by high levels of fat in the liver. This stage of NAFLD is often suspected when a liver function blood test shows liver enzymes are elevated and other diseases associated with a fatty liver have been excluded. Simple steatosis does not cause any serious damage to the liver but if the build-up of fat increases it can lead to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). 

2. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a more serious form of NAFLD. The build-up of excessive fat in the liver causes inflammation and injury to the liver cells which leads to scar tissue (fibrosis) forming.  A liver biopsy is determined by examining liver tissue obtained by biopsy. Although NASH can progress, often the disease doesn't always progress.  The build-up of fat seen in those with NASH is similar to fatty liver seen in those who have the alcohol-related form of liver disease, but NASH occurs in people who don't abuse alcohol. 

3. NASH-related cirrhosis (NRC) is the most serious form of NAFLD caused by scarring throughout the liver. Without intervention, cirrhosis can eventually progress to liver failure which is a life-threatening condition and can cause serious complications, including increasing pressure in the brain and excessive bleeding in the body. Those who have NRC may require a liver transplant. 

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