Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a serious medical concern. It is caused by the buildup of fat in liver cells and is commonly found in obese people and those with high cholesterol. It afflicts up to 25% of adults in the United States. It can lead to swelling of the liver, damage, and eventually liver failure–which is serious becuase it has no cure.
On top of that, liver damage is connected to another common, serious health condition–sleep apnea. Studies show that this sleep disorder can worsen or even cause liver damage and fatty liver disease.
Fatty Liver Disease and Sleep Apnea
New research suggests that people who have sleep apnea are more prone to developing fatty liver disease.
What is Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common cause of chronic liver failure in the United States. In a nutshell, excess fat accumulates in the liver. Over time, the liver enlarges and liver cells are replaced by scar tissue. This eventually leads to liver malfunction, cirrhosis, occasionally to liver cancer, and sometimes to end-stage liver failure. An estimated 25% of adults in the United States today have NAFLD.
The obvious reason why NAFLD is becoming more prevalent is the increase in the nation’s girth–the development of NAFLD is strongly linked to being overweight. In particular, it is linked to being obese and/or to having metabolic syndrome or overt type II diabetes.
NAFLD is generally ignored by both medical doctors and the population. It doesn’t have any overt symptoms until it is quite advanced. Any known treatments revolve around addressing the more obvious problems of obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can sometimes reverse or stop the progression of NAFLD. End-stage forms of NAFLD can only be treated by a liver transplant.
Sleep Apnea Worsens Fatty Liver Disease
A recent study reported that there may be a direct link between sleep apnea and NAFLD that goes above and beyond the obvious indirect link between obesity/ sleep apnea/ NAFLD. In this study, a cohort of 101 obese patients were studied. Obese patients afflicted with obstructive sleep apnea were found to be much more likely to have developed a more advanced form of NAFLD.
Researchers think that oxygen deprivation caused by the frequent failures to breathe during sleep may be causing cases of NAFLD to dramatically worsen.
Sleep Apnea Causes Fatty Liver Disease?
Another study suggests the situation may be even more complicated–sleep apnea may be directly involved in the development of liver disease in the first place. In this study, 226 patients suspected of having sleep apnea were examined. Despite the fact that the patients were not selected on the basis of being obese, an astonishing 61.5% had varying degrees of NAFLD.
Analyses of these patient’s data identified an independent link between sleep apnea and the presence of NAFLD, which suggests that sleep apnea by itself might be able to directly cause NAFLD. In this same analysis, the severity of sleep apnea was linked to the severity of NAFLD in obese individuals.
What Should Patients Do?
The connection between sleep apnea and fatty liver disease suggests that patients with NAFLD or its risk factors should be tested for sleep apnea. Since there is no specific treatment for NAFLD, testing patients known to have sleep apnea for liver disease is rather pointless. Patients who have been diagnosed with NAFLD but aren’t sure if they have sleep apnea (in fact,many patients with sleep apnea remain unaware of their condition) may want to undergo a sleep study. If they do have sleep apnea, treating the condition may help reverse their liver disease.
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