Fatty Liver Disease

Some fat in your liver is normal. But if it makes up more than 5%-10% of the organ's weight, you may have fatty liver disease. If you're a drinker, stop. That's one of the key causes of the condition.

There are two main types of fatty liver disease:

  • Alcoholic liver disease (ALD)
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)

You can also get fatty liver disease during pregnancy.

Alcoholic Liver Disease (ALD)

You can get alcoholic liver disease from drinking lots of alcohol. It can even show up after a short period of heavy drinking.

Genes that are passed down from your parents may also play a role in ALD. They can affect the chances that you become an alcoholic. And they can also have an impact on the way your body breaks down the alcohol you drink.

Other things that may affect your chance of getting ALD are:

Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)

It's not clear what causes this type of fatty liver disease. It tends to run in families.

It's also more likely to happen to those who are middle-aged and overweight or obese. People like that often have high cholesterol and diabetes as well.

Other causes are:

  • Medications
  • Viral hepatitis
  • Autoimmune or inherited liver disease
  • Fast weight loss
  • Malnutrition

Some studies show that too much bacteria in your small intestine and other changes in the intestine may be linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Acute Fatty Liver of Pregnancy

It's rare, but fat can build up in your liver when you're pregnant. This could be risky for both you and your baby. It could lead to liver or kidney failure in either of you. It might also cause a serious infection or bleeding.

No one fully understands why fatty liver happens during pregnancy, but hormones may play a role.

Once you get a diagnosis, it's important that your baby gets delivered as soon as possible. Although you may need intensive care for several days, your liver often returns to normal in a few weeks.

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Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease

You might have fatty liver disease and not realize it. There are often no symptoms at first. As time goes on, often years or even decades, you can get problems like:

  • Feeling tired
  • Loss of weight or appetite
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion, poor judgment, or trouble concentrating

You might have some other symptoms, too. Your liver may get larger. You could have a pain in the center or right upper part of your belly. And the skin on your neck or under your arms may have dark, colored patches.

If you have alcoholic liver disease, you may notice that the symptoms get worse after a period of heavy drinking.

You could also get cirrhosis, a scarring of your liver. When that happens, you might have:

  • Buildup of fluid in your body
  • Wasting of your muscles
  • Bleeding inside your body
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Liver failure

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease

You might find out that you have the disease when you get a routine checkup. Your doctor might notice that your liver is a little larger than usual.

Other ways your doctor might spot the disease are:

Blood tests. A high number of certain enzymes could mean you've got fatty liver.

Ultrasound. It uses soundwaves to get a picture of your liver. The doctor may also ask for an MRI or cat-scan to get additional images of your liver.

Biopsy. After numbing the area, your doctor puts a needle through your skin and takes out a tiny piece of liver. He looks at it under a microscope for signs of fat, inflammation, and damaged liver cells.

Treatment of Fatty Liver Disease

There is no specific treatment. But you can improve your condition by managing your diabetes, if you have it.

If you have alcoholic liver disease and you are a heavy drinker, quitting is the most important thing you can do. Talk to your doctor about how to get help. If you don't stop you could get complications like alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis. 

Even if you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, it can help to avoid drinking. If you are overweight or obese, do what you can to gradually lose weight -- no more than 1 or 2 pounds a week.

Eat a balanced and healthy diet and get regular exercise. Limit high-carb foods such as bread, grits, rice, potatoes, and corn. And cut down on drinks with lots of sugar like sports drinks and juice.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on July 27, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Liver Foundation: "Fatty Liver Disease," "Fatty Liver."

EMedicine: "Alcoholic Fatty Liver."

NIDDK: "Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis."

American College of Gastroenterology: "Fatty Liver Disease."

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