Why you should care about fatty liver disease

December 23, 2013 LuLu Iles-Shih, MD

The liver is a vital organ necessary for survival.  It performs crucial functions including protein synthesis and detoxification.  When excessive amounts of fat and lipids accumulate in the liver cells, this can lead to liver injury and cause a disease called fatty liver disease.  Fatty liver disease is a serious diagnosis that has become one of the most common causes of abnormal liver function tests in the United States.   Fatty liver disease is also referred to as Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease or NAFLD.  NAFLD is associated with other diseases which influence fat metabolism, such as type 2 diabetes.

Why is fatty liver disease important?

NAFLD is a single disease seen in both alcoholics and non-alcoholics, especially in those who are overweight.  When a biopsy is taken of a fatty liver, features of liver injury and fat deposit in the liver may be seen.  These findings are of crucial importance as fat accumulation may cause progressive inflammation of the liver over time.  This is called steatohepatitis.  Unfortunately, NAFLD may progress to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, which may mean someone would later need liver transplantation.

What are the risk factors for fatty liver disease?

You should consider discussing fatty liver disease with your physician if you have any of the following:

  • Diabetes mellitus.
  • Abnormal liver blood tests.
  • High body mass index (BMI > 28).
  • Increased alcohol use in those who are overweight.

What should you do if you have fatty liver disease?

You should discuss with your physician whether the following treatment options are safe and appropriate for you:

  • Weight loss.  Rapid weight loss should be avoided.  The goal of creating a sustainable and lifelong healthy lifestyle is paramount to the successful treatment of fatty liver disease. 
  • Treatment of heart disease.  Your general wellbeing is crucial to the overall health of your liver.  Treatment of cholesterol, heart disease and optimizing your blood glucose control if you have diabetes are all parts of a successful treatment plan for your liver health.
  • Pharmacologic therapies.  Some studies have shown that certain vitamins and medications may assist in improving your liver health if you have NAFLD.  You should discuss with your physician whether medication options may be right for you.
  • Alcohol avoidance
  • Certain hepatitis vaccines may be considered, if you do not already have immunity

Depending on the degree of damage, further liver damage and inflammation may be halted to decrease any progression towards cirrhosis.  Preventing or slowing the progression of cirrhosis is of utmost importance as it is a risk factor for liver cancer.  Talk with your physician to discuss your liver’s health.

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