Fatty liver disease

What is fatty liver disease?

Fatty liver disease describes a condition where there is excess fat (medical terms - 'lipids' describes fats and fatty acids; 'triglycerides' refers to fat molecules, which are a type of lipid) in the cells of the liver. This accumulation of fat in the liver is referred to as 'steatosis'. Fatty liver disease is diagnosed where more than 10% of the weight of the liver is made up of fats.

What types of fatty liver disease are there?

As a major cause of fatty liver disease is excess alcohol intake, fatty liver disease is broadly divided into types that are NOT caused by alcohol, these are...

  1. Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFL) - where there is no inflammation of the liver
  2. Non Alcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) - where there is inflammation of the liver

Where the cause is alcohol related, the condition is referred to as either 'alcoholic steatosis' (again where there is no inflammation) or 'alcoholic steatohepatitis' (where there is).

Fatty liver disease is very common in developed countries with about 10% of the population affected.

What causes fatty liver disease?

There is no medical consensus on what causes the condition, although certain people are generally at higher risk of developing it, especially where they...

  • Have high cholesterol levels
  • Take specific types of medicine or have been exposed to certain chemicals
  • Have diabetes
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Drink alcohol to excess
  • Have experienced rapid weight loss and/or malnutrition

In addition people who have Coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), HIV and hepatitis C are at higher risk of developing fatty liver disease.

What are the symptoms of fatty liver disease?

There are generally no outward symptoms of fatty liver disease at all and diagnosis is generally only made during blood tests for other conditions or where the liver appears enlarged in body scans.

What is the treatment for fatty liver disease?

There is no specific treatment for fatty liver disease, but treatments for other conditions that are often linked to fatty liver disease such as diabetes, Coeliac disease and IBD can improve the condition. In general, if you are diagnosed with fatty liver disease, you should...

  • Minimise/eliminate alcohol intake
  • Eat a balance diet
  • Exercise more
  • Lower your fat intake
  • Lose weight (avoiding any rapid weight loss)