What Is Fatty Liver Disease?
Last updated: February 2022
Fat makes up approximately 5-10% of the typical human liver's overall weight. People whose livers have more fat than that within their liver cells are considered to have fatty liver disease. This is specific to the cellular level of the liver, not visible globs of fat attached to the liver, as some imagine the condition to be.
What is fatty liver disease?
There are two types of fatty liver disease: alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The alcoholic type is attributed to the action of consuming significant amounts of alcohol over a long period of time, though some may become afflicted after a short period of heavy drinking. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is attributed to anyone who has the disease not due to alcohol, including those whose livers have been damaged by hepatitis C, an inherited liver condition, those who have diabetes, and those with significant and quick weight loss or malnutrition.
How do I know if I have fatty liver disease?
The symptoms of fatty liver disease are not always noticeable and this can mean that a person can have this disease for a long time without anyone knowing or that the diagnosis may come as a result of testing run for a different diagnosis or set of symptoms. For those who do experience effects, they are typically based on fatigue and on pain in the upper right area of the abdomen. Some may experience jaundice, enlarged breasts (in men), ascites (significant abdominal swelling), an enlarged spleen, enlarged blood vessels just under the skin’s surface, or red palms. In some cases, these signs may be assumed to be part of a different problem, but anyone experiencing any of these symptoms may choose to ask their doctor whether they should be tested for fatty liver disease
How can I prevent it?
Experts are currently not completely certain why some people get fatty liver disease and others don’t, even when their behaviors are quite similar. Some think there may be a genetic component. However, many believe that there are risk factors in a person’s behavior that may increase the likelihood that they will experience fatty liver disease. These include insulin resistance (often resulting in diabetes), hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), obesity or being overweight, and high levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood. When one or more of these occur, many doctors believe that the risk of fatty liver diseases increases, as the behaviors tend to promote the body’s chances of depositing fat on the liver.
In addition, some specific health issues may contribute to the disease, including poor eating habits, a high fat diet, significant consumption of drugs or alcohol, or any form of viral hepatitis. In addition, those with high cholesterol, polycystic ovary syndrome, sleep apnea, or an under-active pituitary gland (called hypopituitarism) are also considered to be situations that can increase a person’s chances of obtaining fatty liver disease.
How can I manage fatty liver disease?
Those with fatty liver disease should already have a physician available to them. This is because this is not an illness that is typically self-diagnosed, but rather a combination of symptoms leading a doctor to test for this illness or a medical problem that is accidentally discovered when the doctor is testing the patient for other issues. This makes it easy for the patient to find out facts and to ask about treatment options, as their doctor is right there, delivering the diagnosis. In these moments, you should ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable with the information. You may want to ask if you can record the conversation on your phone or have a support person with you in the room or on the phone during this discussion, as some patients struggle to take in all of the information when they are processing the news of the diagnosis.
Currently, there are no medical treatments that cure fatty liver disease. However, there are some well-respected treatment methods that many doctors prescribe. These are focused on improving the health of the liver. Your doctor may refer you to a liver specialist (a gastroenterologist) and/or to a dietician. These professionals can work to treat the liver, as well as helping you to lose weight and consume a low-fat diet in a way that fits into your life. In addition, it is important that a patient avoid alcohol, as this can exacerbate the disease and anyone with diabetes will need to be even more careful about management of their insulin. By monitoring your health and by working with professionals to make proper changes to your lifestyle, you can minimize the symptoms and concerns related to having fatty liver disease.1-6