The University of Chicago Medicine takes a collaborative approach to managing fatty liver disease by bringing together liver disease experts from multiple specialties to ensure you receive the most innovative, comprehensive treatments. Each member of our team participates in the evaluation and ongoing care of every patient. Because fatty liver disease is typically linked to other metabolic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess weight, we work with a hepatologist, endocrinologist and nutritionist within the clinic. We also work closely with our bariatric surgery and bariatric endoscopy teams as well as our Chicago Weight management program to provide leading edge all-encompassing care.

What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, refers to a group of liver conditions in which there’s a buildup of fat in the cells of the liver. Fatty liver disease can be caused by drinking too much alcohol, but in the case of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, alcohol isn’t involved. Excess weight or obesity, prediabetes and diabetes, high levels of fat in the blood (high cholesterol) and hypertension are all risk factors that make a person more likely to develop NAFLD. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can lead to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a condition in which the liver becomes inflamed over time. Eventually, that inflammation can lead to scarring of the liver or cirrhosis. Cirrhosis, in turn, has many complications (including liver cancer), and may cause the need for a liver transplant.

Frequently Asked Questions

NAFLD is a silent disease in its early stages; most people experience no signs or symptoms.

Insulin resistance is believed to be a major factor leading to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Insulin resistance — a condition in which the body’s cells cannot absorb glucose — leads to the accumulation of fat in the liver cells, which causes stress and inflammation in the liver. Other conditions linked to an increased chance of developing NAFLD include:

  • Metabolic syndrome (in which a patient has three or more of the following factors: extra weight with a large waist, high blood pressure, high triglyceride level, low HDL cholesterol and high blood sugar)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High levels of fat in the blood (high cholesterol)
  • Weight problems (overweight/obesity)

Genetics can also play a role in developing fatty liver disease. One gene in particular, PNPLA3, is linked to an increased risk for the disease. This gene is frequently found in people of Hispanic and/or Latino heritage.

Read a Q&A with Dr. Charlton to learn more about fatty liver disease

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) occurs when fat cells in the liver become inflamed. Over time, this inflammation can cause lasting damage in the form of scarring and cirrhosis. NASH-related cirrhosis and liver failure are leading causes for liver transplants.

Before your first visit, we ask you to fill out a food recall questionnaire (both on paper and online — a code will be sent to you before your visit) along with a weight history. Please bring these forms with you to your appointment; they’ll help us tailor your evaluation and treatment. You’ll undergo lab tests on your first visit, so remember not to eat or drink after midnight before your appointment.

Please set aside three hours for your first appointment, and don’t forget to bring your insurance card, identification and list of medications. During this visit, you’ll meet with our team of providers, including a hepatologist, endocrinologist and nutritionist. You’ll undergo lab tests and a simple exam in the office called a Fibroscan. Similar to an ultrasound, this test gives us information on how healthy your liver is, how much fat it contains and whether it has any scarring.

After the initial visit, your provider will meet with you on a periodic basis to review your treatment plan and track your progress. The goal for treatment is to improve your metabolic risk and decrease the amount of fat in your liver in order to prevent liver scarring.

UChicago Medicine employee helping a patient check in

For Consultations, Referrals or Appointments

Contact Estela Villagomez at 773-702-5571 or email MetabolicLiverClinic@uchospitals.edu.

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Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)