What is a Fatty Liver?

What is a Fatty Liver?

Discover the definition of a fatty liver, the two main diseases you need to consider and how to reduce symptoms to stay fit and healthy.

Your liver is an integral part of your body, with over 500 vital functions. But when excessive fat builds up on this essential organ, you could experience serious underlying health problems.

While it’s normal for the liver to contain a small amount of fat, when the fat storage reaches 5-15% of its overall weight, it can be defined as fatty. 

The liver’s role of helping the body process nutrients from food and drinks and filter harmful substances from your blood is vital.

That’s why it’s important that the liver needs to avoid the development of these undesirable deposits of fat to function to its fullest potential. The question is, how can you do it?

Let’s explore.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease vs alcohol-induced fatty liver disease

The main difference between non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcohol-induced fatty liver disease is the causes.

As the name suggests, alcohol-induced fatty liver disease is triggered by consuming large quantities of alcohol, while non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by a build-up of fat within the liver cells.

How serious is a fatty liver?

Fatty liver infiltration, known as hepatic steatosis, can become a more serious health problem if left with no changes or isn’t detected in its early stages.

And having high levels of fat in your liver is associated with more grave health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.

There are four stages to the progression of a fatty liver:

1. Simple fatty liver – When there is a build-up of excess fat in the liver.

2. Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) – Not only is there excess fat but there’s inflammation in the liver.

3. Fibrosis – The persistent inflammation in the liver has now caused scarring. Scarring impairs the function of the liver.

4. Cirrhosis – The scarring of the liver has become widespread, impairing the liver’s ability to function.

Cirrhosis is the most severe and irreversible stage. It can lead to fluid build-up in the abdomen (ascites), swelling of the veins in your oesophagus, confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech, liver cancer, and end-stage liver failure.

Diagram showing the stages of liver damage. Source: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/fatty-liver#symptoms

There are also two forms of NAFLD to consider:

According to Mayo Clinic, roughly 20% of people with NASH will progress to cirrhosis. When cirrhosis occurs, liver cells are replaced by scar tissue. Your liver function, and the overall condition of this organ, can then get progressively worse.

For optimal health, the liver must function correctly, avoiding these undesirable high amounts of fat.

Non-Alcohol Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a term used for a range of conditions caused by a build-up of fat in the liver.

It occurs when the body produces too much fat, or the body doesn’t metabolise fat efficiently enough.

On average, NAFLD affects approximately 1 in 3 people in the UK and is becoming increasingly common, especially in Western Nations.

What causes NAFLD?

There are a variety of NAFLD causes that can lead to an unhealthy and poorly functioning liver.

NAFLD occurs when someone has a build-up of fat in the liver that is not caused by alcohol use. The reasons for this type of liver disease, including steatohepatitis, can include:

All these causes of NAFLD encourage excess fat to build within the liver, with obesity often the main culprit. So much so that some experts estimate that about two-thirds of obese adults and half of obese children may have fatty livers.

There are also some instances where people have fatty liver due to other diseases, such as:

  • PCOS

  • Chronic hepatitis B

  • Chronic hepatitis C

  • Hemochromatosis (a genetic abnormality of iron storage.)

  • Medicines like steroids or chemotherapy.

In some cases, women can develop fatty liver because of complications that can develop in late pregnancy.

High fat levels in this major organ are linked to diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, so you must take care of your largest solid organ. 

What are the symptoms of NAFLD?

Both types of liver disease (NAFLD and alcohol-induced fatty liver disease) present similar steatosis symptoms.

Hepatic steatosis symptoms can sometimes be non-existent, but signs that could indicate fatty liver disease include:

  • Fatigue

  • Weakness

  • Nausea

  • Abdominal pain

  • Swelling in the upper abdomen

  • Spider-like blood vessels – caused when fat builds up in the liver from fatty liver disease, and blood flows sluggishly or clots, which impacts the blood pressure.

  • Itching – Pruritus (an unpleasant sensation that causes the need to scratch) can be a symptom of liver disease. Not all people with liver disease develop pruritus, and its prevalence can vary depending on the underlying cause.

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes

  • A build-up of fluid and swelling of the legs (oedema) and abdomen (ascites)

  • Mental issues/confusion/depression

  • Loss of appetite

  • Constipation, diarrhoea, or both.

  • Headaches and migraines

  • Pain or heaviness in the right ribcage

  • Poor digestion, bloating, or food sensitivities

  • Persistent deficiencies in Vitamin D, A, E, K

  • Feeling angry or frustrated often

  • Acne/rashes/eczema

  • Thyroid issues – 70% of thyroid conversions happen in the liver

  • Trouble staying asleep

  • Floating stools

  • Season allergies

  • Extra sensitive to caffeine

  • Bacterial, fungal, or parasite overgrowth

  • You feel tired in the morning – A lack of energy could mean your liver is burdened and struggles to filter toxins overnight.

  • You struggle to lose fat – Hormones in the thyroid affect your metabolic rate. It also determines the body’s fat-burning protocols and cravings.

  • You don’t feel well after meals – Your liver controls bile production and this aids digestion. Digestion slows down and food backs up when bile is stagnant, and dangerous bacteria flourishes. This can cause fatigue, bloating, and gas after meals.

  • You struggle to think/focus – Your brain uses a lot of blood to function. The liver filters your blood, so if the blood is toxic and ‘dirty,’ this can lead to increased brain fog.

  • You have dark eye circles – When the blood flow lacks oxygen and fills with toxins and poisons, the thinner skin around your eyes darkens

  • Or NO symptoms at all

Is there a cure for NAFLD?

Early-stage NAFLD doesn’t usually cause any harm. But it can lead to more pressing liver damage if it doesn’t improve.

There is currently no medication to treat fatty liver disease specifically.

Therefore, in most cases, lifestyle changes can help manage and reverse most stages of fatty liver disease.

Can NAFLD be prevented?

In many cases, healthy lifestyle choices can prevent and help you manage non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Some things you can do include:

  • Losing weight

  • Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet

  • Drinking water instead of sweet, fizzy drinks

  • Exercising regularly

  • Quitting smoking

  • Cutting down on or stopping alcohol consumption

Alcohol-induced fatty liver disease

The liver is the most complex organ in the human body, second to the brain.  

This intelligent and resilient organ can regenerate itself. However, prolonged alcohol misuse over time can reduce its ability to regenerate.

In turn, the liver can face consequential and permanent damage.

There are three main stages of alcohol-related liver disease:

1. Alcoholic fatty liver disease – The build-up of fats in the liver after consuming large amounts of alcohol (even over a few days).

2. Alcoholic hepatitis – A critical condition caused by alcohol misuse. Mild alcoholic hepatitis is usually reversible if the person stops drinking alcohol permanently. However, more serious alcoholic hepatitis is a profound illness.

3. Cirrhosis – When the liver has become significantly scarred.

This type of liver disease is common in the UK and the number of people with the condition has been increasing over the last few decades.

What causes alcohol-induced fatty liver disease?

The consumption of large amounts of alcohol can damage the liver and lead to a build-up of fat. Contrary to belief, drinking excessively for just a few days could lead to alcohol-induced fatty liver disease.

What are the symptoms of Alcohol-Induced Fatty Liver Disease?

Alcohol-induced fatty liver disease doesn’t usually cause any symptoms until the liver has acute damage.

When the liver is damaged, symptoms may include:

  • Feeling sick

  • Weight loss

  • A loss of appetite

  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (also known as jaundice)

  • Swelling in the ankles and tummy

  • Confusion or drowsiness

  • Vomiting blood or passing blood in your stool

This type of fatty infiltration of the liver is usually detected when tests are done for other health problems, or as previously mentioned, at a stage of advanced damage.

Is there a cure for alcohol-induced fatty liver disease?

Like NAFLD, there is no medical treatment for alcohol-induced fatty liver disease.

Removing alcohol consumption, preferably for the rest of your life, can reduce the risk of further damage.

In some severe cases, a liver transplant might be required if the liver stops functioning completely and doesn’t improve.

Can alcohol-induced fatty liver disease be prevented?

The best way to prevent alcohol-induced fatty liver disease is to cut down or stop drinking alcohol.

If a person is dependent on alcohol, cutting it out can be difficult. The best solution is to seek support, medical treatment and advice online or from a medical professional.

How are NAFLD and alcohol-induced fatty liver disease diagnosed?

Because these fatty liver diseases don’t always show symptoms, in most cases, the condition is identified when tests are being done for other health reasons. For example, when you visit your local GP, hospital or specialist for:

Is there a cure for NAFLD and alcohol-induced fatty liver disease?

There is no cure for NAFLD and alcohol-induced fatty liver disease, but lifestyle changes can prevent or make a difference to those diagnosed.

These lifestyle changes include:

  • Reduce or abstain from alcohol consumption

  • Losing weight

  • Drinking water over sweet, fizzy drinks

  • Exercising regularly

  • Stopping smoking

When preventing fatty liver disease and additional complications, it is important to prioritise a healthy lifestyle.

What happens if I don’t treat my NAFLD or alcohol-induced fatty liver disease?

Ignoring fatty liver diseases can lead to more health problems, including liver cancer, cardiovascular disease, and heart failure.

Liver failure can affect many of your body’s organs and cause short-term and long-term health conditions.

NAFLD and NASH, if left to get worse, can cause life-threatening liver conditions, including liver failure and liver cancer.

Additionally, if alcoholic cirrhosis is ignored, more health complications can arise, including internal (variceal) bleeding, a build-up of toxins in the brain, or liver cancer.

By making these all-important lifestyle changes, like eating a balanced diet, losing weight, and being more active, you can prevent or decrease your likelihood of your liver disease progressing and getting more detrimental.

It’s time to take care of your liver!

Liver disease is on the rise, so we must understand what the liver does and how to keep it at its optimum health to prevent these fatty liver diseases.

The liver has over 500 distinct functions, and science indicates that by supporting and improving your liver health, you can make positive changes to your entire state of wellbeing.

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