What is fatty liver disease?
Fatty liver disease, also known as steatosis, is a condition which is caused by the accumulation of fat in the liver cells. The amount of accumulated fat depends on the balance between the processes, which store and remove fat in the liver. It is common for the liver cells to contain a little fat, but if that fat makes up more than 5-10% of the liver´s mass, the condition is called fatty liver disease. Normally the liver consists of less than 5% fat.
What are the symptoms of fatty liver disease?
Only a small minority of people with fatty liver disease experience symptoms. If the condition is very severe, i.e. if there is a lot of fat accumulated in the liver, then it can result in symptoms such as:
- General malaise
- Muscle weakness
- Discomfort in the abdominal region
- Yellowing of skin and eyes
What are the causes of fatty liver disease?
The accumulation of fat in the liver can be the result of many different disorders in the body. Conditions which lead to an increased fat-accumulation are, among others, a decreased breakdown of fat in the liver cells, an increased production of fat in the liver cells, an increased delivery of fat from the blood to the liver cells, and error in the mechanisms, which are responsible for the removal of fat from the liver cells to the blood. These disorders can be both the result of genetic defects and an unhealthy lifestyle. Fatty liver disease is traditionally divided into alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
An increased consumption of alcohol can result in an increased storage of fat in the liver, hence the name ‘alcoholic fatty liver disease’. Fatty liver disease will also appear in all individuals who consume more than 2.11 ounces of alcohol per day, but others also develop it with a lower levels of alcohol consumption. Alcohol can, among other things, also increase the production of fatty acid, inhibit the breakdown of fat and prevent the liver cells from discarding the fat. But alcohol also has many other effects on the body, which increase fat-deposition.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by other factors than alcohol, including increased consumption of fat, being overweight and type 2-diabetes. Thus, the condition is tied to metabolic syndrome, which is often the result of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Both types of fatty liver disease can worsen if the disease-causing factors are not improved upon, which can lead to the patient developing inflammation (steatohepatitis) or scar tissue in the liver (cirrhosis).
What treatment-options are available for fatty liver disease?
Patients with alcoholic fatty liver disease are not given any specific medical treatment. The condition is often reversible, which means that abstention from alcohol and a nutritional diet will often be sufficient in treating the patient, and cause a reduction of fat stored in the liver cells.
In the case of non-alcohol fatty liver disease, lifestyle changes are the primary treatment. There are currently not any approved medical remedies against fatty liver disease. In this case, weight loss is an important factor for the patient’s future, since it does not only have the possibility of decreasing the amount of fat in the liver, but can also reduce the risk of inflammation (steatohepatitis) and the development of scar tissue (cirrhosis).