Fatty liver disease is when fat builds up in the liver. The liver can be damaged and become enlarged. The scientific name for fatty liver disease is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). It may take many years for NAFLD to become severe enough to cause liver damage.
When it does cause damage in some cases, the fat in the liver leads to inflammation and, with time, scarring. This more severe type of NAFLD is called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). It may progress to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Fatty liver disease occurs most often in people with diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or high cholesterol. These conditions tend to occur together, and when combined in one person, they’re referred to as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is becoming increasingly common as our population becomes less active and eats an unhealthy diet.
Most people who have fatty liver disease are 40 to 50 years old and have one or more of the risk factors listed above. But fatty liver disease can happen in people who have none of these risk factors. We now even see it in children.
In the early stages of fatty liver disease, you may have no symptoms. Most people feel fine and don’t know they have it.
As the disease progresses and liver damage gets worse, you may have vague symptoms such as:
- an ache in the upper right part of your belly
- poor energy levels
Fatty liver disease can be diagnosed with blood tests and radiology tests such as an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. A liver biopsy may also be needed. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re overweight or if you have high blood sugar or cholesterol.
There are a number of effective ways to treat fatty liver disease:
- Lose weight. Weight loss is a key aspect of treatment. Fatty liver disease can be reversed if you lose weight. Make a weight loss plan with your healthcare providers, and exercise to keep weight off.
- Exercise. Exercise means exerting yourself. You will know because you’ll feel breathless, and you’ll sweat. Start slowly if you’ve been inactive, for example brisk walks 5 to 10 minutes long. Build up to 30-minute brisk walks five days a week, adding in hills or stairs. Your healthcare providers can help guide you.
- Avoid alcohol. The current medical recommendation is that if you have fatty liver disease, you should avoid all alcohol. This is because alcohol also increases liver fat and may compound the problem.
- Get treatment for high blood sugar, hypertension, and elevated cholesterol. Medications can help to lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. In turn, this reduces fat in the liver. Ask your healthcare provider if you have these conditions and if medications are a good option for you.
You can have both fatty liver disease and another liver disease at the same time. Having two liver diseases can cause more liver damage and serious medical complications. If you have two liver diseases, it’s even more important to lose weight and exercise. By doing these things, you can treat both diseases at the same time.
The information on this page was adapted (with permission) from the references below, by the Cirrhosis Care Alberta project team (physicians, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, registered dietitians, physiotherapists, pharmacists, and patient advisors).
This information is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare team. They know your medical situation best. Always follow your healthcare team’s advice.