Understanding Fatty Liver Disease

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Fatty liver has become one of the most common liver diseases in India, mainly due to sedentary lifestyles and high-calorie intake. Let’s take a closer look at the signs, effects, diagnosis, and treatment of fatty liver disease.

What is a fatty liver disease?

The build-up of excessive levels of fat in the liver is called a fatty liver disease or hepatic steatosis. This condition can lead to a multitude of complications that can harm your liver, cause liver scarring, and eventually lead to liver failure.

What are the types of fatty liver disease?

Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD): Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by heavy alcohol consumption. There are two types, namely:

  •  Simple alcoholic fatty liver: In this, there is an accumulation of fat in the liver without any accompanying inflammation or complications
  •  Alcoholic hepatitis: In this, there is an excess accumulation of fat followed by inflammation

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): In non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcohol consumption is not the cause of excessive buildup of liver fat. It is of two types:

  • Simple non-alcoholic fatty liver: It is accompanied by inflammation or other complications.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): If there is an accumulation of fat followed by inflammation

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy (AFLP): This happens when excess fats build up in the body during pregnancy and exact cause is unknown. This usually develops in the third trimester of pregnancy, and if left untreated, it poses serious damage to both the mother and the baby

Causes of fatty liver

What causes fatty liver disease?

Drinking excessive alcohol: High alcohol intake usage can affect the metabolic processes of the liver. The metabolised products react with fatty acids to form certain types of fat, which may accumulate in the liver

Other causes (besides alcohol consumption) include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Insulin resistance, when your cells stop responding or become ‘resistant’ to insulin, leads to high blood sugar levels
  •  High levels of blood triglycerides
  • Pregnancy
  •  Medications like corticosteroids, antidepressants, and antipsychotics

What are the risk factors for fatty liver disease?

The category of people who are more prone to fatty liver includes:

  • Women reaching menopause
  • Having a high body weight with a high level of abdominal or belly fat
  • Having sleep apnea (a blocked airway that causes breathing to start and stop during sleep)
  • Having chronic conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes 
  • Smoking

What are the symptoms of fatty liver disease?

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea or urge to vomit
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Yellowish colour of skin, nails, and whites of eyes (jaundice)
  • Swollen abdomen and legs
  • Generalised weakness
  • Mental confusion

How is fatty liver disease diagnosed?

Doctors employ a variety of methods to diagnose fatty liver disease because it typically exhibits fewer symptoms.

  • Physical examination
    Initially, your doctor may press on your abdomen to check whether your liver is enlarged and tender
  • Blood tests
    Your doctor advises you to undergo blood tests, which include liver function tests that can indicate elevated liver enzymes like alanine aminotransferase  (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), blood glucose levels, and blood cholesterol levels
  • Imaging tests
    Imaging tests like ultrasound scan or computed tomography helps to visualise the liver, and identifying inflammation and complications
  • Liver biopsy
    In serious cases you may be asked to undergo a liver biopsy, where your doctor will insert a needle into your liver and remove a piece of tissue for examination
  • Fibroscan
    A newer technique for diagnosing fatty liver disease uses a specialised ultrasound-based machine to determine scarring and the amount of fat buildup in the liver.

How is fatty liver treated?

While there are no specific medications for the treatment of fatty liver disease, it can be managed by focusing on lifestyle changes such as:

  • Avoiding or restricting alcohol intake
  • Losing weight
  • Keeping reasonable control of your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels by following your doctor’s advice and taking medicines on time
  • Making healthy changes to your diet – eating healthy, low-processed meals and cutting out added sugars and unhealthy fats
  • Avoiding unnecessary supplements and medications that can damage your liver

Can fatty liver disease be prevented?

You can certainly reduce the risk of fatty liver disease by:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy diet (including unprocessed foods, vegetables, and fruits)
  • Restricting your alcohol intake

What is the best diet for fatty liver?

A healthy diet rich in fibre, fruits, and vegetables is always recommended. These include foods like:

  • Oatmeal
  • Greens like cauliflower, spinach, and broccoli
  • Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna (rich in omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Nuts and seeds

Avoid added sugars, fried foods, added salt, white bread, pasta, and red meat whenever possible, as they contribute to the factors affecting fatty liver diseases like diabetes, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

Is fatty liver disease reversible?

Yes, you can counter early fatty liver-related changes through lifestyle modifications.

What are the complications of fatty liver disease?

The main complications caused are:

  • Liver cirrhosis is a condition characterized by continuous inflammation in the liver, leading to scarring
  • Liver failure and liver cancer: in some cases, liver cirrhosis can lead to liver failure and liver cancer
Dr. Keertana
WRITTEN BY

Dr. Keertana

PharmD
A medical writer with a Doctorate in Pharmacy, she writes vividly about medicine and science. Read her contributions and writings about various healthcare topics.

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