Fatty Liver Disease: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

Janis

By Janis | Updated January 8, 2024

Fatty liver disease is a common condition characterized by an excessive buildup of fat in the liver, leading to inflammation and, in some cases, liver damage. 

A healthy liver contains a small amount of fat; however, when fat constitutes 5% to 10% of the liver’s weight, it is considered a health problem. 

Fatty liver disease, or hepatic steatosis, comes in two varieties: one stemming from non-alcoholic causes, known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and one associated with alcohol, known as alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). 

While the latter is caused by excessive alcohol consumption, NAFLD has various causes, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Symptoms of fatty liver disease might not be noticeable until the condition has progressed. 

Diagnosing fatty liver disease often involves imaging procedures such as abdominal ultrasound, CT scanning, or MRI. While these techniques might not be able to differentiate between NAFLD and AFLD, they are still essential in identifying the issue. 

Signs and Symptoms

In this article, we will discuss the common symptoms, potential signs, and complications associated with fatty liver disease.

Common Symptoms

Individuals might not detect any noticeable signs in the beginning phases of fatty liver disease. As the condition worsens, some typical symptoms might include:

Eye and Skin Yellowing

Jaundice, characterized by yellowing of the skin and eyes, can occur in advanced stages of fatty liver disease. 

This happens when the liver’s ability to eliminate bilirubin, a waste product in the body, is compromised. While jaundice itself usually doesn’t cause pain, it often indicates significant liver damage.

Swelling 

Swelling or fluid buildup, especially in the abdomen (ascites) or legs (edema), is a common symptom of advanced fatty liver disease. 

This occurs when the liver’s function deteriorates, causing fluid imbalance in the body.

Long-Term Tiredness

Fatigue or ongoing tiredness is a frequent symptom of fatty liver disease. This persistent lack of energy can impact your ability to carry out daily tasks and may not improve with rest.

Though fatigue is common and often not indicative of severe illness, chronic fatigue coupled with other signs such as jaundice, abdominal pain, or unexplained weight loss should prompt a visit to a healthcare professional to rule out conditions like fatty liver disease.

Stomach Pain

Abdominal pain, particularly in the upper right area, is often associated with fatty liver disease. 

This discomfort occurs due to inflammation or significant enlargement of the liver, causing it to press against other organs.

Possible Medical Signs

In addition to the common symptoms, some other signs may indicate the potential presence of fatty liver disease. These may require medical or blood tests to identify them. 

These signs may include:

  1. Higher levels of certain liver enzymes, such as alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), suggest liver damage.
  1. Accumulation of fat in liver cells, observed during a liver biopsy
  1. Abnormal liver appearance in ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may help diagnose diseases associated with the liver.

Complications

If fatty liver disease is left untreated, it can lead to more severe complications. These include the following major medical issues. 

  1. Excessive fat buildup in the liver can cause inflammation and scarring of the liver tissue due to chronic liver damage
  1. Liver cancer. Though rare, it is a possible consequence of untreated fatty liver disease.
  1. Fatty liver disease has also been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

It is therefore important to seek medical attention if you suspect you may have fatty liver disease, as early intervention can help prevent these complications and improve your overall health. 

Causes and Types of Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease occurs when there is too much fat buildup in the liver, becoming an issue when it accounts for 5% to 10% of the liver’s weight. 

There are two main forms: non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). The factors contributing to these conditions differ, and therefore, they will be discussed individually.

Non-Alcoholic Type

NAFLD is characterized by the buildup of fat in the liver, which is not attributed to drinking alcohol. The precise origins of NAFLD remain somewhat unclear, but numerous factors contribute to its onset. 

Obesity 

Obesity is a significant risk factor for the development of NAFLD. Approximately 50- 90% of obese individuals have fatty liver disease.

Insulin Resistance 

Insulin resistance can lead to a buildup of fat in the liver. It occurs when the body does not use insulin effectively, resulting in higher levels of glucose in the blood. 

This excess glucose is eventually converted into fat and stored in the liver.

High Blood Sugar and Diabetes

Both high blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes are considered risk factors for NAFLD. 

Uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause fat buildup in the liver, exacerbating the condition.

Increased Blood Cholesterol 

High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood have been linked to a greater risk of developing NAFLD.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

As the name suggests, AFLD is caused by excessive or chronic alcohol consumption. Alcohol damages the liver in several ways:

Alcohol Consumption 

When you drink alcohol, the liver metabolizes it, creating toxic byproducts. 

These toxins can lead to inflammation and fatty liver disease.

Cellular Stress 

Alcohol increases the production of free radicals, which can cause oxidative stress and damage liver cells. 

This damage can consequently result in inflammation and fat buildup within the liver.

Poor Nutrition 

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to malnutrition, as it reduces the absorption of essential nutrients and vitamins. This lack of nutrition can contribute to the development of fatty liver disease.

Confirming Fatty Liver Disease

Early identification of this condition can help curtail its progression and prevent severe liver damage. The following section presents a detailed overview of the diagnostic methods for detecting fatty liver disease. 

Physical Examination and Medical History

Diagnosing fatty liver disease starts with a thorough medical history and physical examination. Your doctor will ask about your lifestyle habits, such as alcohol consumption, diet, and exercise, as these factors can contribute to fatty liver disease. 

The physical examination may include checking for an enlarged liver or other signs of liver disease, such as yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice) or swelling in the abdomen.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are often used in diagnosing fatty liver disease. These tests help measure liver enzymes, which can be elevated due to liver damage. The most common liver enzymes checked are alanine transaminase (ALT) and aspartate transaminase (AST). 

While an elevation in these enzymes can indicate liver inflammation or damage, it’s important to note that normal enzyme levels do not always rule out fatty liver disease.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests, such as ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can help detect fat accumulation in the liver. 

Ultrasound is often the first imaging test used, as it is non-invasive, widely available, and cost-effective. 

However, CT scans and MRIs can provide more detailed images and may be used when further investigation is needed.

Liver Sampling

In some cases, a liver biopsy may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis of fatty liver disease. This procedure involves the taking of a small liver tissue sample, which is then examined under a microscope. 

A liver biopsy can provide valuable information about the severity of liver damage and inflammation, as well as rule out other liver diseases. 

However, as an invasive procedure it is usually reserved for cases where other diagnostic methods are inconclusive or additional information is needed for treatment planning.

Prevention and Management

Fatty liver disease can often be prevented or managed with healthy lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication. The following section discusses various approaches.

Proper Food Choice and Planning

Making some adjustments to your diet can be a crucial step in preventing fatty liver disease.

It’s vital to maintain a diet that’s well-balanced, with ample fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. 

Some important dietary changes include:

  1. Replace saturated and trans fats with healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, nuts, and olive oil.
  1. Consume more high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to improve digestion and keep the liver functioning properly.
  1. Reducing the consumption of added sugars and refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, can help prevent excessive fat buildup.

Exercise and Weight Control

Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine can play a vital role in preventing fatty liver disease. Exercise helps in maintaining a healthy weight and reducing body fat, which, in turn, helps in preventing or improving fatty liver disease. 

It is essential to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. Some beneficial types of exercise include:

Aerobic exercises such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling can help improve liver function and overall health.

Resistance training, including weight lifting and bodyweight exercises, can assist in building muscles and burning fat.

Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise is crucial in preventing fat from accumulating in the liver and lowering the risk of developing fatty liver disease.

Control of Alcohol Consumption

For individuals with alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD), reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption is a necessary step to preventing further liver damage. We suggest monitoring your alcohol intake and considering abstaining from alcohol entirely if you are at risk. 

Moderating alcohol consumption is not only crucial for those with AFLD but also for individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), as excessive alcohol consumption can worsen the condition. Keep in mind the following guidelines:

It is recommended that men consume no more than two drinks per day and women consume no more than one drink per day.

By implementing these prevention strategies, you can effectively reduce your risk of developing fatty liver disease and improve your liver’s health.

Counseling or Support Groups 

Participating in therapy or support groups can help individuals cope with alcohol withdrawal and maintain sobriety. They provide the opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies, fostering a sense of community and support.

Medications and Supplements

Although no specific medications are approved for treating fatty liver disease, some medications may be prescribed to manage associated conditions or reduce liver inflammation. Examples of medications include:

Diabetes Medicine

Insulin-sensitizing medications, such as thiazolidinediones, can help manage fatty liver disease among individuals with insulin resistance. These medications can improve how the body uses insulin, reducing liver fat and inflammation.

However, these medications should be used under a doctor’s supervision and usually only prescribed when lifestyle modifications are insufficient. 

Vitamin E

Some studies suggest that vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, may improve liver health in non-diabetic individuals with NAFLD. Research suggests it can help improve liver health by reducing inflammation and preventing liver cell damage.

It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any medications or supplements for fatty liver disease. They can provide guidance on the best course of action based on your specific condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common symptoms of fatty liver disease?

In its initial stages, fatty liver disease frequently presents no symptoms. As the condition progresses, symptoms may include fatigue, abdominal pain, and swelling. 

In more advanced stages, symptoms such as jaundice, confusion, and bleeding can occur.

What causes fatty liver disease to develop?

Fatty liver disease may be caused by various factors, including obesity, insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and high levels of fats in the blood. Excessive alcohol intake can also lead to fatty liver disease, known as alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). 

Genetics and certain medications may also contribute to the development of fatty liver disease.

How is fatty liver disease diagnosed?

Fatty liver disease may be diagnosed through blood tests, which can detect altered liver enzyme levels. 

Imaging tests, such as abdominal ultrasound, CT, or MRI, can identify enlargement of the liver. In some cases, a liver biopsy may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis and assess the extent of liver damage.

What lifestyle changes can help prevent fatty liver disease?

It is important to maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and exercise regularly to prevent fatty liver disease.

Reducing alcohol consumption and managing medical conditions, such as diabetes and high cholesterol, can also help reduce the risk of fatty liver disease development.

How is fatty liver disease treated?

The primary treatment for fatty liver disease involves lifestyle modifications, such as losing weight, eating a healthy diet, and incorporating regular exercise. 

In some cases, medications may be prescribed to address associated conditions, like high cholesterol or diabetes. In more advanced stages, treatment may involve managing complications, such as cirrhosis and liver failure.

What is the timeline for progression from fatty liver to cirrhosis?

The progression from fatty liver to cirrhosis can vary greatly depending on individual factors and the underlying cause of the disease. For some, the progression may occur rapidly, while others may never progress to cirrhosis. 

Early detection and intervention through lifestyle changes and medical management can significantly reduce the risk of developing cirrhosis.