Fatty liver disease is a term for conditions where fat builds up in the cells of your liver. It can be caused by drinking too much alcohol or it may be unrelated to alcohol.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is most often a result of being overweight, and is particularly common in men and people with diabetes. Fatty liver disease can sometimes lead to serious liver problems, such as liver cancer and cirrhosis.
If our liver is healthy, there should be little or no fat in it. However, sometimes, fat molecules called triglycerides begin to collect in our liver cells. Small amounts of fat in our liver usually cause no problems. However, when too much fat builds up, this is called fatty liver disease.
There are two main types of fatty liver disease.
- Alcoholic liver disease, which is caused by drinking too much alcohol.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by other conditions, such as diabetes or being overweight.
Fatty liver disease is becoming one of the most common types of liver disease and can sometimes lead to serious health problems. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is more common in men than in women, and is more likely to be diagnosed in people with diabetes and those over 50.
Fatty liver disease can lead to an inflamed liver and scarring. This is called alcoholic hepatitis if it’s caused by drinking too much alcohol and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) if it’s not related to alcohol. Both of these conditions can eventually lead to cirrhosis, which can be life-threatening. Fatty liver disease can also lead to liver cancer.
Fatty liver disease often has no symptoms, particularly when it’s mild. However, we may feel tired, or have pain and discomfort where our liver is – on the right side of our body just under our ribs.
This pain is caused by a growing amount of fat inside our liver, which makes it to expand, stretching the sensitive membrane that covers our liver. As fatty liver disease progresses, our liver may become scarred and develop cirrhosis. If we develop cirrhosis, we may notice other symptoms such as:
- a swollen abdomen (tummy)
- itchy skin
- vomiting and bringing up or passing blood
- bruising easily
- confusion or poor memory
- weakness and muscle wasting
- yellow whites of your eyes and skin (jaundice)
There are several different stages of fatty liver disease. The first stage is where fat builds up in our liver without any inflammation or scarring. For many people, the condition won’t get any worse than this and a serious liver condition won’t develop. However, for some people, the build-up of fat causes inflammation. Around one in 20 people who develop an inflamed liver as a result of fatty liver disease will go on to develop serious liver problems, such as cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure. All of these conditions are life-threatening.
There are a number of things that can cause fatty liver disease. The two main ones are:
- drinking too much alcohol
- being overweight or obese – this makes it more likely that we will develop conditions such as diabetes or high cholesterol, both of which can also cause fatty liver disease
There are other things that can cause fatty liver disease, including some medicines and rapid weight loss, but these are less common.
Fatty liver disease can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because we may not have any symptoms. The doctors may ask the patient to have a blood test to check how well the liver is working. He may ask for other blood tests to find the cause of symptoms or to rule out other possible causes. There is no single test that can be used to diagnose fatty liver disease, but the doctor may carry out some of the tests listed below.
- Ultrasound or scan. An ultrasound, CT scan or MRI scan can all be used to create images of our liver. These images will show any fat in our liver.
- Fibroscan. This is similar to an ultrasound scan – it can help to show any scarring of our liver.
- Liver biopsy. This is the only way to confirm how much damage there is to our liver. A biopsy is a small sample of tissue. It’s taken using a very fine hollow needle that is inserted into our liver under local anaesthetic. The sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.
If we have alcoholic liver disease, it’s essential that we stop drinking alcohol. If we don’t stop drinking alcohol, fatty liver disease can develop into alcoholic hepatitis and then cirrhosis in the future. If we stop drinking, it’s likely that our liver will recover from fatty liver disease and hepatitis. If we have non-alcoholic liver disease, there is no specific treatment for it in the allopathic medicine. However, making changes to our lifestyle and alternative medicine can help cure it. Losing excess weight, increasing the amount of activity we do and treating other conditions, such as diabetes and high cholesterol, can all help to reduce the amount of fat in our liver.
We may be able to prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by:
- maintaining a healthy weight for your height
- being active – try to do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more
- eating healthy foods that are low in saturated fat