Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis: The Sneaky, Silent New Liver Disease
“NASH” is a new form of hepatitis
You’ve likely heard of hepatitis C, the liver disease with potentially devastating health consequences. Now, there’s a new type of hepatitis that can lead to the same results, including cirrhosis, the need for a liver transplant and even death.
It’s "NASH" – nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, and it’s increasingly common. Researchers estimate that 16 million Americans have NASH, and it’s expected to surpass hepatitis C as the leading cause of liver transplants by 2020.
"We’re seeing a rapid increase in people who we’re diagnosing with NASH," said Dr. Christopher D. Still, medical director of the Center for Nutrition & Weight Management and director of the Geisinger Obesity Research Institute. "It’s caused by the buildup of fat in the liver."
NASH is one of a group of conditions called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. While it’s similar to the liver disease caused by long-term heavy drinking and can even lead to cirrhosis, NASH occurs in people whom may not drink alcohol at all!
Many of the people suffering from NASH don’t even realize they have it.
"Most people that have NASH don’t have any symptoms, and it can be difficult to diagnose because it progresses slowly and isn’t something that physicians can easily monitor on an ongoing basis," said Dr. Still.
The disease progresses over years or even decades, and doctors are not quite sure when someone with a fatty liver is at risk for NASH. On top of that, the only way to be sure of the diagnosis is to biopsy the liver; this requires sticking a needle into the liver and extracting a couple cells, something a lot of patients are leery of.
NASH appears to be linked to lifestyle. The causes of NASH include:
- Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
- High cholesterol and high triglycerides
- Large Waistline (35 inches in women and 40 inches in men)
The only real treatment for NASH is to change your lifestyle. By eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and drinking less alcohol, NASH patients who lose weight can bring this and other related conditions under control.
"The good news is, by changing your diet and making a few other lifestyle changes, patients can reverse NASH," said Dr. Still. "The liver has an amazing ability to regenerate cells, which means that it can replace the fatty cells and, basically, heal itself. And it doesn’t take much weight loss to see these improvements – often just 10 – 15 pounds!"
World Hepatitis Day is July 28, which is a great time to reexamine your own health. If you think you may be experiencing a problem with your liver, ask your doctor about your risk for NASH.