Fatty Liver Disease: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
The liver naturally contains a little fat, but if fat makes up more than 5% to 10% of the liver you have fatty liver disease. This often develops as a result of alcohol abuse or poor diet and affects as many as 1 in 3 people to some degree.
The risk of fatty liver disease is greater for men and adults over the age of 50, but with proper treatment and self-care, the condition can often be reversed.
What Is Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty liver disease, also known as FLD, is a reversible condition which affects fat metabolism and causes fats to accumulate in the liver in excessive amounts. A fatty liver is often accompanied by inflammation called steatohepatitis. There are two main types of fatty liver disease, which are:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by drinking too much alcohol
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by other conditions such as obesity or diabetes.
Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease
Most people with a fatty liver don't present many noticeable symptoms and so the condition often progresses unnoticed. Some only become aware when undergoing tests for other issues such as blood tests or ultrasound scans of the abdomen. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Pain in the upper right area of the abdomen, where the liver is located
- Generalised feelings of weakness and discomfort in the body
- Unexplained weight loss or lack of appetite
- Trouble concentrating, impaired judgement of confusion
- Patchy dark skin discolouration on the neck or underarm area
- Jaundice (yellow-looking skin and eyes)
- Swelling in the ankles and abdomen
Causes of a Fatty Liver
The exact cause of fatty liver disease is not clear, but certain factors are known to increase the risk. As the name suggests, alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by excessive alcohol consumption that damages cells in the liver. This is reversible if caught in the early stages as the liver has impressive regenerative properties. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can have several different causes, including:
- Being overweight or obese
- High cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Diabetes or insulin resistance (prediabetes) which causes an increased uptake of fat into the liver cells.
- Pre-existing autoimmune diseases or inherited liver diseases
- Inherited or genetic predispositions to alcoholism
- Malnutrition or rapid weight loss, such as that related to gastric bypass surgery
- Certain drugs and toxins such as antiretroviral medications, the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen, and environmental toxins such as poisonous mushrooms
- In rare cases, pregnant women can develop fatty liver disease, which can be dangerous.
If left untreated, the persistent inflammation can cause scar tissue to develop in the liver, and in severe cases, bands of scar tissues can shrink the liver, a condition known as cirrhosis. Once liver damage reaches this stage it is permanent and cannot be reversed. There are also links between fatty liver disease and liver cancer and liver failure.
An alcoholic fatty liver disease can also develop into alcoholic hepatitis, which can be fatal in extreme cases, and alcoholic-related liver diseases account for over a third (37%) of liver-disease deaths. If you are concerned about your own drinking habits, contact your GP for further advice.
During pregnancy, fat can build up in the liver putting both mother and child at risk of liver or kidney failure, infections, or haemorrhaging. If you’re pregnant and notice abdominal pain or the whites of your eyes and skin turning yellow, you should contact your GP straight away. If you are aware of existing liver problems, make an appointment with your doctor prior to conception.
Treating a Fatty Liver
- Lose any excess weight: Many people with fatty liver disease are overweight. Making positive lifestyle changes can reduce the amount of fat in the liver cells, which can help to heal inflammation.
- Exercise: Getting 150 minutes of exercise per week is recommended for general good health, and it can also help to naturally lower cholesterol levels and shed any excess weight. There’s no need to join a gym or buy expensive workout gear – walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, cycling or yoga are all good forms of exercise.
- Avoid alcohol: If you have been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, it is important to stop drinking alcohol to avoid the development of alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis. Avoiding alcohol is good for your general health and will give the liver time to recover.
- Quit smoking: If you smoke, it is important to give up. The chemicals in cigarettes interfere with the liver's ability to process and remove toxins and so exacerbates liver disease.
- Manage diabetes appropriately: People with type II diabetes have an increased risk of developing fatty liver disease and are more likely to have the disease progress to cirrhosis. Type II diabetes causes an increased uptake of fat into the liver cells and sufferers may need medications to reduce high blood sugar levels.
Diet for a Fatty Liver
- avoid salty foods
- aim for 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day
- eat high-fibre foods such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta
- choose lean cuts of meat
- eat a low-cholesterol diet
- grill, bake or poach food rather than frying
- avoid crash diets and rapid weight-loss programmes
- avoid organ meats or iron supplements. High levels of iron may promote the formation of scar tissue and damage the liver
- limit intake of sugars and fats.
Natural Remedies for Fatty Liver Disease
Milk Thistle is a herbal supplement made from the leaves and seeds of the Silybum marianum plant, which secretes a milky white fluid. The herb has been used as a traditional remedy for liver disease for hundreds of years and is thought to help stabilise cell membranes and accelerate the regeneration of damaged liver tissue.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect the liver by reducing or neutralizing the damage caused by inflammation. There is some evidence to suggest that vitamin E supplements may be particularly beneficial for those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It works by softening existing scar tissue and improving blood flow to the liver, accelerating the regeneration of damaged cells.
Selenium is another important antioxidant that can promote healthy liver function. It helps to preserve liver cells and improve tissue elasticity, which is important for liver health and circulation.