Does your child love to eat white bread, pasta, ice cream, fried food and sugar-laden treats regularly? Do they prefer breakfast cereal instead of healthy alternatives? Do you worry that your child chooses to stream their favourite video on TV instead of playing outside? If your answer is yes, chances are they might develop chronic liver diseases such as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) over time. According to the NCBI, 1 in 3 Indian children have NAFLD, and its prevalence is strongly linked with childhood obesity.
NAFLD is a chronic liver condition that occurs due to fat buildup in the liver. Over time, this excessive accumulation can cause liver inflammation and interfere with critical liver functions like removing toxins from the blood, maintaining blood sugar levels, fat/carbohydrate metabolism, and bile production. It can lead to fibrosis, scarring of the liver cirrhosis , liver cancer or liver failure.
As the cases of childhood obesity continue to skyrocket, parents are aware that extra pounds on their child may create problems like diabetes, high BP and cholesterol. But the link between obesity and chronic liver disease is less known.
The 2 types of NAFLD are
- Simple Fatty Liver Disease: This condition occurs due to fat buildup in the liver. It does not lead to liver inflammation or damage. Even with time, there are little to no liver complications.
- Non-Alcoholic SteatoHepatitis Disease (NASH): On the contrary, NASH leads to swelling, damage, and scarring of the liver. Scarring is when healthy liver tissues are replaced by scar tissues. The liver turns hard and blocks blood circulation.
Though only a small proportion of children develop NASH, researchers are unsure what causes a simple fatty liver disease to progress to NASH and cirrhosis.
Obesity, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, high cholesterol, poor diet, lack of physical activity and certain genetic factors cause fatty liver disease. In rare cases, medications taken for other conditions have led to NAFLD.
Doctors do not understand why some children with fatty liver develop NAFLD and some do not. Since it’s difficult to diagnose liver inflammation without a biopsy, the condition often goes undiagnosed until the late stages.
NAFLD does not show any symptoms until the scarring starts interfering with normal liver functions. Signs of the fatty liver in children include
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling tired or weak
- Liver or spleen enlargement
- Jaundice (skin and eyes turn yellow)
- Discomfort on the liver, the upper right side of the belly
If you notice your child exhibiting these symptoms, consult a Liver transplant surgeon immediately, as late-stage cirrhosis may lead to liver damage or cancer. Also, no medicines have been approved to date to treat fatty liver in children.
That said, our liver is the only internal organ that can regenerate itself by replacing damaged tissues with new cells. So, early diagnosis and treatment can reverse the condition. If your child is overweight or obese, get them tested now. Also, encouraging them to shed extra pounds via a healthy diet and physical activity will go a long way.