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Health and Fitness News

When Your Liver Goes Fat

Understanding what fatty liver is and how it’s treated.

The liver is the second largest organ in the body, yet it’s often overlooked. This vital organ is involved in over 200 vital functions, including storing nutrients, aiding digestion, fighting infections, detoxifying the body, and creating blood. To put it simply, you can’t survive without the liver.

A small percentage of all livers is fat. But when more than 10 percent of the liver is fatty, you have fatty liver disease, also known as hepatic steatosis. As the condition worsens over time, your fatty liver can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and loss of liver function.

Here’s what you should know about this common disease.

Two Main Types

Fatty liver disease is often associated with heavy drinking. That’s because alcohol causes fat to build up in the liver. However, only five percent of people with fatty liver disease have alcoholic fatty liver disease. Surprised? Most cases of fatty liver disease affect people who rarely drink. When this happens, it’s called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Who’s at Risk?

While the exact cause of fatty liver disease is unknown, there are risk factors that make you more likely to develop the disease. Besides heavy drinking, other risk factors include obesity, excess belly fat, diabetes, insulin resistance, malnourishment, obstructive sleep apnea, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and other health conditions. Additionally, postmenopausal women are at a greater risk for the disease, and certain medications increase the risk as well.

Fatty Progression

The good news is that most cases of NAFLD don’t worsen over time or cause serious liver damage. Many people don’t even know they have it. Many, unfortunately, do. Between 7 and 30 percent of people with NAFLD see a progression of symptoms.

In the beginning stages, NAFLD can cause inflammation, which damages healthy liver cells. This damage forms scar tissue (fibrosis) that slowly begins to take over the liver. Known as cirrhosis, this scar tissue stops the liver from doing its job efficiently and effectively.

As cirrhosis continues to grow worse, symptoms set in. You may have pain or feel full on the right side of your belly as your liver swells. Many people experience nausea, a lack of appetite, and unexplained weight loss. Cirrhosis can also cause jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Other symptoms include red palms, fatigue, weakness, mental confusion, and swelling in the belly or legs. If severe enough, cirrhosis can cause liver cancer and liver failure.

You’ve Got It, Now What?

Since the early stages of fatty liver disease often have no symptoms, the disease is often detected through blood work. A final diagnosis is determined through a physical exam, ultrasound, CT scan, or a liver biopsy.

At this point, there are no medications available to treat fatty liver disease. Instead, treatment aims at helping you manage the condition. This is best done by avoiding the things that led to the disease or by making lifestyle changes to improve your health. Have fatty liver disease? You may need to stop drinking alcohol, lose weight, manage your diabetes, or take medications to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, or triglycerides.

The liver is an amazing organ that can regenerate lost or damaged tissue. With the right changes, excess fat can be reduced and liver damage can be reversed. Otherwise, expect your cirrhosis to grow worse and have a negative impact on your life.