One of the common liver problems, fatty liver is a condition in which the liver cells are accumulated with fats. Though, not life-threatening, in some cases, it can lead to complications that can be mild to severe. Apart from a fatty diet, this condition may be caused by various other factors, like excess alcohol consumption.
What is Fatty Liver Disease
As the name rightly suggests, this disease refers to fat accumulation in the liver. While a liver with little or no fat is considered healthy, one with excess fat accumulation is called fatty liver. If the fat deposits in the liver accounts for more than five to ten percent of the organ's weight, then it is diagnosed as fatty liver disease. In most cases, a simple fatty liver may not cause any symptom and may not even lead to complications. However, with the fat deposits, the liver becomes prone to further health problems, in some people. With excess fat deposits, the liver may develop complications like, cirrhosis, liver failure and even liver cancer. The common and mild stage of this disease is called simple fatty liver or 'hepatic steatosis' and the more serious and worsened one is known as 'steatohepatitis', which is less common.
Alcoholic and Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver
On the basis of its causes, the disease is classified into two main categories - alcoholic and non-alcoholic. While alcoholism is the cause for alcoholic fatty liver, non alcoholic variant can be caused by various other factors. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition that describes fatty liver in people who consume little or no alcohol. One of the common causes for developing fatty liver is alcoholism.
In small amounts, alcohol intake may not cause any liver problems, but excess alcohol can slow down the liver and result in conditions like fatty liver. Studies show that genetics too has a role to play in development of fatty liver. This may happen in two ways. The likelihood of a person developing alcoholism may be determined by the genes. The rate of alcohol metabolism may vary in people, as per certain genetic factors. Alcoholism combined with factors like fatty diet, obesity and other liver problems can increase the probability of developing the condition.
- Alcoholism is a major cause of fatty liver disease.
- Another common cause is obesity. A high fat diet, sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise, are also among the contributory factors.
- Diabetes, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in blood) and rapid weight loss may also lead to this liver condition.
- In some people, gastric bypass surgery is found to cause fatty liver disease.
- Malnutrition and starvation for long periods may be among the contributory factors for this liver disease.
- Long-term use of certain types of medication (like tetracycline and corticosteroids) may also cause this condition.
- Immunosuppressive medication for rheumatoid arthritis and anti-retroviral therapy may lead to fatty liver.
- Medical conditions like PCOS, hypothyroidism and high cholesterol levels are also among the possible fatty liver disease causes.
- Those with HIV, hepatitis C and inflammatory bowel disease have increased chances of developing fatty liver.
- Acute fatty liver may develop during pregnancy and this is a serious condition that may affect both the mother as well as the fetus.
What are the Symptoms of Fatty Liver
In both types, fatty liver disease can vary in severity. It could be a simple fatty liver, which is not a severe and/or life-threatening condition that may not even cause symptoms (some people may develop occasional abdominal discomfort). The condition may worsen to inflammation of the liver, which is called steatohepatitis (alcoholic steatohepatitis and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis). This condition may sometimes cause symptoms like fatigue, right abdominal discomfort (may also have dull pain), yellowing of the eyes and skin and fever.
Steatohepatitis may gradually cause scar tissues or fibrosis to form in the liver. This may sometimes cause symptoms like nausea, discoloration of the skin in patches (especially neck and underarm), easy bruising and bleeding and liver enlargement, apart from the occasional right abdominal pain and fatigue.
Fibrosis can later on worsen to cirrhosis, which can result in liver failure or even liver cancer. As per studies, it takes around 8 to 15 years for a person with steatohepatitis to develop cirrhosis, which is a serious condition that can produce many different symptoms like, jaundice, fluid retention, swelling in legs, gynecomastia and bleeding of esophageal veins. As simple fatty liver disease symptoms may go unnoticed, this liver condition is usually diagnosed accidentally through routine blood tests or medical check-ups. It can also be diagnosed through ultrasound, CT scan, blood tests, biopsy or MRI.
Treatment mainly aims at remedying the underlying cause. In case of simple alcoholic fatty liver, alcohol consumption has to be stopped. For those with non alcoholic fatty liver disease, correct diagnosis is very much important. This is because of the myriad health problems than can cause the condition. For obese people, weight loss is suggested as a remedy. The condition can be reversed, if detected at an early stage. There is no specific treatment for severe fatty liver disease, but health experts recommend reduction in alcohol consumption and treatment of underlying causes. A change in diet and weight loss are considered most effective against this disease.
With the increasing number of diabetic and obese people, the occurrence of fatty liver disease is also on the rise. Non alcoholic fatty liver disease can be prevented to some extent, by regular exercise and a balanced diet with less fats, sugars and carbohydrates. Those with underlying medical conditions must get them treated. Follow a healthy lifestyle and prevent fatty liver disease, which may worsen with time, if not taken care of, in the early stages.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice. Visiting your physician is the safest way to diagnose and treat any health condition.