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What is Fatty Liver Disease? Here’s a Brief Overview

If you’ve received a diagnosis of fatty liver disease, it means there are excess fat deposits in your liver. In some cases, this can lead to inflammation and liver damage. When this happens, the disease is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), and it can lead to serious complications. If you have a fatty liver but no damage, medical professionals will refer to your condition as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). A person who has a fatty liver and also drinks too much alcohol may be diagnosed with alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). However, the information on this page is about NASH and NAFLD.

Although it’s normal to have small amounts of fat in your liver, accumulating too much fat can cause liver inflammation, which can lead to scarring and potentially even liver failure. Therefore, because the body depends on the liver to filter toxins from the blood and process nutrients from food and beverages, NASH can be a life-threatening condition.

Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms

Many people develop excess fat in the liver without ever experiencing liver damage or any symptoms. Some people with NAFLD may experience fatigue and pain in the upper right abdomen. A small percentage of people with fatty liver disease will develop NASH, but even then, it could take years for the symptoms to become noticeable. When they do, these symptoms may include:

  • Severe fatigue and weakness
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Spiderlike blood vessels on the skin
  • Intense itching
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Red palms

As the disease progresses, the ongoing inflammation can lead to scarring and hardening of the liver, which is known as cirrhosis. This can cause more severe symptoms, including fluid retention, internal bleeding, muscle wasting and mental confusion.

What Causes Fatty Liver Disease?

One of the top causes of fatty liver disease is consuming more calories than your liver can metabolize. This can happen through simple overeating, but there’s also evidence that insulin resistance may play a role.

Who is at Risk for Fatty Liver Disease?

Although younger people can have fatty liver disease, it typically affects people between the ages of 40 and 60 who are obese, especially if they have concentrated abdominal fat. There are many health conditions that can increase your risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, including:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Sleep apnea
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Underactive (hypo-) thyroid
  • Underactive pituitary gland
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder

What Complications can Arise from Fatty Liver Disease?

The primary complication that can result from NASH or NAFLD is cirrhosis. This condition refers to scarring and the eventual hardening of the liver in response to ongoing inflammation. If cirrhosis continues, it can lead to:

  • Liver cancer
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (characterized by confusion and slurred speech)
  • End-stage liver failure, which means the liver stops functioning

Treating Fatty Liver Disease

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with NAFLD or NASH, your doctor will most likely recommend an appropriate diet and exercise program that will help you get or maintain a healthy weight and improve metabolism. Your treatment plan may also include medication to control cholesterol, blood sugar and/or triglyceride levels if needed. Patients with celiac disease who adhere to a gluten-free diet can often reverse the excess fat accumulation in the liver.

Can Fatty Liver Disease Be Prevented?

Although the causes of fatty liver disease are not fully understood, many people can avoid it by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising several days of the week (with doctor approval). If you are already overweight or obese, you may need to reduce your daily calorie intake.

If you’re concerned that you may have fatty liver disease, it’s important that you consult with your primary care doctor. If you need to find a doctor, Tampa General Hospital’s online physician locator can help. If you or a loved one is experiencing serious complications as a result of fatty liver disease, our liver disease specialists may be able to help. Call 1-800-505-7769 today to learn about our services.