The liver has such an important role in processing food and waste materials from our body, and it is important to keep it healthy.
A healthy liver contains little to no fat content, and one of the common liver diseases is fatty liver disease. Having high levels of fat in your liver is also associated with an increased risk of serious health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease.
What is Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty Liver Disease is caused by the extra fat that is built up and stored in the liver (when the fat reaches 5% to 10% of your liver’s weight). It occurs in people who are overweight and those with diabetes. While we know what a healthy liver looks like, too much alcohol and too much food will cause our body to turn these excess calories into fat. The fat is then stored in liver cells and they can continue to be built up. If there is too much fat, you will have a fatty liver.
Though the disease is common, it does not cause any symptoms and will lead to significant health issues – like liver damage. The disease is getting more common because there are more added sugars and added fats in the food we consume.
The good news is, fatty liver disease is preventable and reversible with some lifestyle changes.
There are 2 main types of fatty liver disease:
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs in people who aren’t heavy drinkers. There are also two kinds to this: just a simple fatty liver (which will not lead to serious complications) and Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), in which you have fat in your liver, inflammation and liver cell damage. The latter may lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease: Also called alcoholic steatohepatitis, this type is related to heavy consumption of alcohol which results to the accumulation of fat in the liver. The more alcohol that you drink, the more you damage your liver.
In most cases, fatty liver disease will not cause any serious problems or prevent your liver from functioning normally. However, it does get worse over time. It progresses through 4 different stages:
- A largely harmless build-up of fat in the liver cells that may only be diagnosed during tests carried out. Most people will only ever develop this first stage, usually without realising it. This is the stage of simple fatty liver (steatosis).
- The liver becomes swollen/ inflamed, and this damages the tissue. This stage is known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
- Persistent inflammation at the parts where your liver is damaged will cause scar tissue to form. This process is called fibrosis.
- A big portion of scar tissue starts to replace the existing healthy tissue and slows down the liver’s functioning. At this point, you have cirrhosis of the liver – which is severe damage which can lead to liver failure and liver cancer.
It can take years for fibrosis or cirrhosis to develop and it is also difficult to distinguish NAFLD from NASH without further testing. It is important to make lifestyle changes to prevent the condition getting worse.
Who is at risk of getting Fatty Liver Disease?
While some people get fatty liver disease due to having pre-existing conditions, sometimes it happens even without. However, you are more at risk and may have a greater chance of developing fatty liver disease if you have the following conditions:
- Over the age of 50
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Have metabolic syndrome (a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity)
- Have sleep apnea
- Insulin resistance, in which your cells don't take up sugar in response to the hormone insulin
- Have polycystic ovary syndrome
- Obesity/ overweight with high level of belly fat
- Postmenopausal (periods that have stopped)
- Other existing medical conditions that affect how your body uses or stores fat
Causes of Fatty Liver Disease
For ALD, the cause is too much alcohol.
As for the non-alcoholic part, it is not known why some people with NAFLD have simple fatty liver and others get NASH. It is a possibility that it could be genetics.
Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease
People with fatty liver disease often do not show symptoms until the disease progresses to cirrhosis. Some common symptoms involving that there may be problems with the liver may include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort in the upper right area
- Loss of Appetite
- Weight Loss
- Jaundice (yellowish skin and whites of the eyes)
- Swollen abdomen and legs
- Extreme tiredness or mental confusion
- Weakness/ Fatigue
Prevention & Treatment
There are many ways to reduce the risk of getting fatty liver disease. Most of them will require lifestyle changes and maintaining overall health which include:
- Avoiding alcohol/ Limit alcohol consumption
- Eating a healthy diet with plant-based food like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats
- Exercise regularly
- Losing weight/ staying at a healthy weight
- Taking prescribed medication to control diabetes, cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood)
There is no medication specifically for fatty liver disease. However, your doctor will instead focus on other factors that may or is contributing to the condition.
If you develop severe cirrhosis and your liver stops functioning as it is supposed to, you will need to undergo a liver transplant. For adults, the average waiting time for a liver transplant is 135 days for transplants from recently deceased donors.
Be Kind to your Liver
Your liver is working around the clock to dispose of unwanted materials from the body, so it is good to be mindful of what you consume. It is also good to schedule regular appointments with your doctor or healthcare professional to check on your liver’s condition and to detect any early signs of new problems.