Can lack of sleep increase your risk of fatty liver disease?

Have you ever considered how those late nights could affect more than just your mood and productivity? 

Recent studies have drawn a concerning link between sleep deprivation and a condition you might not expect: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This disorder can lead to liver damage similar to that caused by heavy drinking.

Over a third of adults fail to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. This lack of sleep doesn’t just leave you groggy—it’s associated with various metabolic changes that can lead to serious health consequences, including NAFLD [1]. 

What is NAFLD?

NAFLD is characterized by the accumulation of fat in liver cells and is primarily driven by metabolic factors like obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides. 

It often has no symptoms but can progress to severe liver conditions such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. It has now become the leading cause of liver transplantation in the Western world, posing a growing concern [1].

The sleep connection

Research from a systematic review and meta-analysis shows a clear pattern: people with sleep disorders like insomnia or those who experience excessive daytime sleepiness have a higher risk of developing NAFLD [2]​​. 

Insomnia itself, even when considering other factors, is associated with a modest increase in the likelihood of NAFLD, with pooled odds ratios suggesting a 13% higher risk​​ [2].

Why does sleep affect your liver? The connection lies in the metabolic consequences of poor sleep, which include:

  • Increased insulin resistance: Insufficient sleep can worsen insulin resistance, a key player in the development of NAFLD.
  • Weight gain: Poor sleep patterns are often associated with weight gain and increased appetite, another risk factor for NAFLD [2]​​.
  • Hormonal changes: Sleep deprivation can disrupt hormonal balances, influencing not only hunger but also the way your body metabolizes fat.

How to protect your liver

Here are some actionable tips to help protect your liver:

  1. Prioritize sleep – Be consistent and try to maintain the same bedtime and wake-up time even on weekends.
  2. Monitor your health – Regular check-ups can help catch signs of liver distress early, especially if you have risk factors for NAFLD.
  3. Stay active – Regular exercise can help manage weight and improve metabolic health, reducing the risk of developing a fatty liver.
  4. Diet matters – A balanced diet low in carbohydrates and fats can help manage both weight and blood sugar levels, crucial for liver health.

Visit the American Liver Foundation for a comprehensive list of ways to protect your liver.

The often-overlooked connection between sleep and liver health highlights the wide-reaching impact of sleep on our overall well-being. 

Improving sleep quality and managing risk factors for NAFLD can safeguard liver and overall health. Remember, good health starts with good habits, including sufficient sleep.


Photograph: YuriArcursPeopleimages/Envato
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