General Patient Information

Patient Information

General Patient Information

What is Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)?

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the buildup of extra fat in liver cells that is not caused by alcohol. It is normal for the liver to contain some fat. However, if more than 5 to 10 percent of the liver's weight is fat, then it is called a fatty liver (steatosis).

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is becoming increasingly common, and it is estimated to affect 100 million people in the United States. NAFLD can affect individuals of all ages, but it is most common in middle-age adults.


Risk Factors

Although health care experts do not know the exact cause of NAFLD, there are known risk factors that cause certain groups to be more prone to development of the condition. Risk factors include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having diabetes
  • Having high cholesterol or triglycerides


Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can occur without symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Spider-like blood vessels
  • Abdominal pain
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Itching
  • Fluid build-up
  • Mental confusion


Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is initially suspected if blood tests show high levels of liver enzymes. However, other liver diseases are first ruled out through additional tests. Often, an ultrasound is used to confirm the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease diagnosis.

Management and Treatment

There are currently no medical treatments for NAFLD and in some cases treatment is not required. Northwestern Medicine has active clinical trials related to treatment of NAFLD. However, certain lifestyle changes may help prevent liver damage from starting or reverse it in the early stages. These include:

  • Lose weight, if you are overweight or obese
  • Lower your cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Control your diabetes
  • Avoid alcohol

In addition, it is recommended that patients with NAFLD see a doctor who specializes in the liver regularly. Our experts at Northwestern Medicine can help patients take steps to improve their liver health.