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What is NAFLD all about?

NAFLD stands for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

It’s a condition where excessive fat builds up in the liver of individuals who consume little to no alcohol. NAFLD is a broad term encompassing various liver conditions, ranging from simple fatty liver (steatosis) to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which involves liver inflammation and can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis.

NAFLD Research-Based Causes:

  1. Obesity and Insulin Resistance: Obesity is a major risk factor for NAFLD, and insulin resistance plays a crucial role in its development.
  2. Metabolic Syndrome: NAFLD is often associated with metabolic syndrome, which includes obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, and dyslipidemia.
  3. Genetics: Genetic factors can predispose individuals to NAFLD, although the precise genetic mechanisms are still being studied.
  4. Dietary Factors: Consuming a diet high in sugars, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats contributes to the development and progression of NAFLD.
  5. Sedentary Lifestyle: Lack of physical activity and sedentary behaviors increase the risk of NAFLD.
  6. Other Medical Conditions: Conditions like type 2 diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and sleep apnea are associated with an increased risk of NAFLD.

NAFLD Signs and Symptoms:

  • In the early stages, NAFLD may not cause noticeable symptoms.
  • As the disease progresses, individuals may experience fatigue, weakness, abdominal discomfort or pain, and an enlarged liver.
  • Elevated liver enzymes may be detected in blood tests.
  • In more severe cases, symptoms can include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), weight loss, and signs of liver dysfunction.

Effective Treatment in Functional Medicine and Nutritional Therapy: Functional medicine and nutritional therapy focus on addressing underlying imbalances and promoting liver health through lifestyle interventions, dietary changes, and targeted supplementation.

Some effective approaches include:

  1. Dietary Modifications: Emphasizing a whole foods-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Limiting sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods is essential.
  2. Weight Management: Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight through a combination of diet, exercise, and stress management.
  3. Blood Sugar Regulation: Balancing blood sugar levels through a low-glycemic diet, regular physical activity, and targeted supplements such as chromium and alpha-lipoic acid.
  4. Liver Supportive Supplements: Certain supplements like milk thistle, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), and vitamin E may support liver function and reduce inflammation.
  5. Stress Reduction: Implementing stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga to mitigate the effects of chronic stress on liver health.

Functional Lab Tests: Functional medicine practitioners may use various laboratory tests to assess liver function, inflammation, metabolic status, and nutrient deficiencies.


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Some common functional lab tests include:

  • Liver function tests (LFTs) to assess liver enzyme levels.
  • Fasting blood glucose and insulin levels to evaluate insulin sensitivity.
  • Lipid profile to assess blood lipid levels.
  • Inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6).
  • Comprehensive metabolic panels to assess overall metabolic health.
  • Nutrient testing to identify deficiencies in vitamins and minerals essential for liver function, such as vitamin D, vitamin E, and selenium.

These tests help guide personalized treatment plans tailored to the individual’s specific needs and imbalances, allowing for targeted interventions to support liver health and overall well-being. It’s essential to work with a qualified healthcare practitioner experienced in functional medicine to interpret these tests accurately and develop an effective treatment strategy.

Research into the genetic factors contributing to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is ongoing, and several genetic markers have been identified that may increase susceptibility to the condition.

Optimal functional lab ranges for liver health can vary depending on the specific test and individual factors.

However, here are some general guidelines for common functional lab tests used to assess liver health:

  1. Liver Function Tests (LFTs):
    • Alanine transaminase (ALT): Optimal range is typically below 30 U/L for men and below 19 U/L for women.
    • Aspartate transaminase (AST): Optimal range is typically below 30 U/L for men and below 25 U/L for women.
    • Alkaline phosphatase (ALP): Optimal range is typically between 44-147 U/L.
    • Gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT): Optimal range is typically below 30 U/L for men and below 19 U/L for women.
  2. Fasting Blood Glucose and Insulin Levels:
    • Fasting blood glucose: Optimal range is typically between 70-99 mg/dL.
    • Fasting insulin: Optimal range may vary, but lower levels indicating better insulin sensitivity.
  3. Lipid Profile:
    • Total cholesterol: Optimal range is typically below 200 mg/dL.
    • LDL cholesterol: Optimal range is typically below 100 mg/dL.
    • HDL cholesterol: Optimal range is typically above 40 mg/dL for men and above 50 mg/dL for women.
    • Triglycerides: Optimal range is typically below 150 mg/dL.
  4. Inflammatory Markers:
    • C-reactive protein (CRP): Optimal range is typically below 1.0 mg/L.
    • Interleukin-6 (IL-6): Optimal range may vary, but lower levels indicating lower inflammation are preferred.
  5. Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP):
    • Albumin: Optimal range is typically between 3.5-5.0 g/dL.
    • Total protein: Optimal range is typically between 6.0-8.0 g/dL.
    • Bilirubin: Optimal range is typically between 0.3-1.2 mg/dL.
    • Sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creatinine: Optimal ranges vary but are typically within established reference ranges.
  6. Nutrient Testing:
    • Vitamin D (25-hydroxyvitamin D): Optimal range is typically between 30-50 ng/mL or higher.
    • Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol): Optimal range may vary, but levels within established reference ranges are preferred.
    • Selenium: Optimal range may vary, but levels within established reference ranges are preferred.

It’s important to note that these optimal ranges are general guidelines, and interpretation should consider individual patient factors, medical history, and any specific recommendations from healthcare providers. Additionally, functional medicine practitioners may use additional biomarkers and functional testing to assess liver health comprehensively and tailor treatment plans accordingly.

What is the role of Insulin with NAFLD?

Insulin plays a crucial role in the development and progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) due to its effects on glucose and lipid metabolism.

Here’s a breakdown of the role of insulin and its connection to NAFLD based on research:

  1. Insulin Resistance: Insulin resistance occurs when cells in the body become less responsive to insulin, leading to impaired glucose uptake and metabolism. This condition is a hallmark of NAFLD and is strongly associated with its pathogenesis. In insulin resistance, the liver continues to produce glucose despite elevated insulin levels, contributing to hyperglycemia and further exacerbating metabolic dysfunction.
  2. Increased Hepatic Lipogenesis: Insulin resistance stimulates de novo lipogenesis (DNL) in the liver, promoting the synthesis of fatty acids from excess carbohydrates. Elevated insulin levels enhance the activity of key enzymes involved in lipogenesis, leading to increased production and accumulation of triglycerides in hepatocytes (liver cells). This process contributes to hepatic steatosis (fatty liver) characteristic of NAFLD.
  3. Suppression of Lipolysis: Insulin inhibits lipolysis, the breakdown of stored triglycerides into free fatty acids (FFAs) in adipose tissue. In insulin-resistant states, this suppression of lipolysis is impaired, resulting in elevated circulating levels of FFAs. These excess FFAs are taken up by the liver, further promoting hepatic lipid accumulation and contributing to NAFLD progression.
  4. Activation of SREBP-1c: Insulin stimulates the expression and activation of sterol regulatory element-binding protein-1c (SREBP-1c), a transcription factor involved in the regulation of lipid synthesis genes. Increased SREBP-1c activity promotes hepatic lipogenesis and contributes to the development of hepatic steatosis in NAFLD.
  5. Inflammatory and Fibrotic Pathways: Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia also contribute to the activation of inflammatory and fibrotic pathways in the liver, leading to the progression from simple steatosis to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and fibrosis. Insulin resistance promotes the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and activates hepatic stellate cells, leading to hepatic inflammation and fibrogenesis.

Overall, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia play central roles in the pathogenesis of NAFLD by promoting hepatic lipogenesis, impairing lipid metabolism, and inducing inflammation and fibrosis in the liver.

Strategies aimed at improving insulin sensitivity and reducing insulin levels, such as lifestyle modifications, weight loss, and pharmacological interventions, are therefore crucial in the prevention and management of NAFLD.

Some of the key genetic variants associated with NAFLD include:

  1. PNPLA3 (Patatin-like phospholipase domain-containing protein 3): This gene variant, particularly the rs738409 C>G polymorphism, is one of the most widely studied genetic factors associated with NAFLD. The variant is strongly associated with increased liver fat accumulation, inflammation, and fibrosis.
  2. TM6SF2 (Transmembrane 6 superfamily member 2): Variants in the TM6SF2 gene have been linked to NAFLD and its progression to more severe liver disease, including non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and cirrhosis.
  3. MBOAT7 (Membrane-bound O-acyltransferase domain-containing 7): Genetic variants in MBOAT7 have been implicated in NAFLD pathogenesis, affecting lipid metabolism and liver fat accumulation.
  4. GCKR (Glucokinase regulator): Variants in the GCKR gene have been associated with NAFLD susceptibility and alterations in glucose and lipid metabolism.
  5. HSD17B13 (Hydroxysteroid 17-beta dehydrogenase 13): Genetic variants in HSD17B13 have been identified as protective against NAFLD and alcoholic liver disease, with the presence of certain alleles associated with reduced liver fat accumulation and decreased risk of liver inflammation and fibrosis.
  6. APOC3 (Apolipoprotein C3): Variants in the APOC3 gene have been linked to dyslipidemia and increased risk of NAFLD due to their effects on lipid metabolism and triglyceride levels.
  7. SLC38A4 (Solute carrier family 38 member 4): Genetic variants in SLC38A4 have been associated with NAFLD susceptibility, potentially through their impact on lipid metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

It’s important to note that while these genetic variants have been implicated in NAFLD susceptibility, they do not determine whether an individual will develop the condition. Environmental factors, lifestyle choices, and other genetic and epigenetic factors also play significant roles in NAFLD development and progression. Additionally, further research is needed to fully understand the complex interplay between genetics and environmental factors in NAFLD pathogenesis.



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