Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is comprised of nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). It is defined by histologic or radiographic evidence of steatosis in the absence of alternative etiologies, including significant alcohol consumption, steatogenic medication use, or hereditary disorders. NAFLD is now the most common liver disease, and when NASH is present it can progress to fibrosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Different mechanisms have been identified as contributors to the physiology of NAFLD; insulin resistance and related metabolic derangements have been the hallmark of physiology associated with NAFLD. The mainstay of treatment has classically involved lifestyle modifications focused on the reduction of insulin resistance. However, emerging evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system and its associated cannabinoid receptors and ligands have mechanistic and therapeutic implications in metabolic derangements and specifically in NAFLD. Cannabinoid receptor 1 antagonism has demonstrated promising effects with increased resistance to hepatic steatosis, reversal of hepatic steatosis, and improvements in glycemic control, insulin resistance, and dyslipidemia. Literature regarding the role of cannabinoid receptor 2 in NAFLD is controversial. Exocannabinoids and endocannabinoids have demonstrated some therapeutic impact on metabolic derangements associated with NAFLD, although literature regarding direct therapeutic use in NAFLD is limited. Nonetheless, the properties of the endocannabinoid system, its receptors, substrates, and ligands remain a significant arena warranting further research, with potential for a pharmacologic intervention for a disease with an anticipated increase in economic and clinical burden.
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