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Diseases & Conditions

Fatty Liver

The liver is an important organ that performs significant jobs for the body. The liver is involved in food breakdown, in storing energy and nutrients, producing proteins such as blood clotting factors, making bile (used to digest food), and breaking down certain drugs and alcohol and other toxins that may enter the body.

We have become accustomed to hearing about the effects of unhealthy eating habits and being overweight on your heart. We have heard that many people, even young children, are developing diabetes. Poor eating habits and being overweight can also harm the liver.

What is fatty liver?

A liver normally contains a certain amount of fat, but if fat represents over 5-10% of the weight of the liver, that person is said to have "fatty liver" or steatosis. Fatty liver can exist without causing symptoms or getting worse in some people. In others, fatty liver can lead to additional health problems.

How does a person develop fatty liver?

Many people who are diagnosed with fatty liver are overweight and considered to be middle-aged. While some people (including children) without any associated conditions may get fatty liver, certain situations may contribute to fatty liver development. These may include:

  • Eating too many calories
  • Having other health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, or high triglycerides
  • Abusing alcohol
  • Malnutrition
  • Losing weight very quickly

Fatty liver with inflammation that is NOT a result of alcohol consumption is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Inflammation of the liver can cause the organ to become damaged. A majority of the people who are diagnosed with NASH are between the ages of 40 and 60. More women than men are diagnosed with NASH.

What are the symptoms of fatty liver?

Fatty liver by itself does not cause symptoms. It is often diagnosed when something is seen to be abnormal in other types of tests, such as blood tests. Perhaps a doctor may find that a liver appears enlarged during a physical examination.

If NASH progresses to an advanced state, or cirrhosis occurs, symptoms may result. Cirrhosis is a progressive disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly. Symptoms associated with advanced NASH may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Mental confusion

Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure and death.

How is NASH diagnosed?

Certain tests may be used to rule out other liver diseases when such diseases or NASH are suspected. These tests may include blood tests for liver enzyme levels, ultrasounds, computed tomography (a CT scan), or magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI). However, NASH itself is diagnosed by liver biopsy. A very small piece of the liver is removed through a needle and examined further at a laboratory.

How is fatty liver disease treated?

Fatty liver and NASH are treated primarily by lifestyle alterations. There are no drugs or surgeries for fatty liver or NASH. Your health care provider may suggest that you:

  • Lose weight, preferably at a rate of one to two pounds per week, rather than more quickly
  • Decrease triglyceride levels through food and exercise, or medication, or both
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages
  • Avoid unnecessary medications (but do not avoid drugs needed to address existing health issues)
  • Manage diabetes, if you have it
  • Eat properly
  • Exercise more
  • Maintain a regular schedule of check-ups with a doctor specializing in liver care

These lifestyle recommendations (eat better, move more) may also hold true for reversing or stopping the effects of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of heart disease risk factors that increase your chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. The condition is also known by other names including Syndrome X, and insulin resistance syndrome.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 10/19/2007…#13914