The liver is a large gland that is about the size of a human head. It is the second largest organ in your body after the skin. The primary function of the liver is to metabolize and store energy in the form of carbohydrates and fat, but it has many other roles in metabolizing substances and clearing blood toxins.
A diet with a high carbohydrate content (which is common in Western diets) and high-fat content (which is common in some Asian diets) is known to increase fat deposition in the liver and contribute to the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Fatty liver is also common in individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus or obesity. However, a significant number of individuals with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease are leaner than normal and have no evidence of metabolic syndrome.
As you can see, fatty liver is not exclusively a problem for obese people. It is not only a consequence of the Western diet or alcohol, and it does not necessarily give out any visible symptoms. You could be apparently normal and live your life like everybody else and still have fatty liver disease.
That’s why we have devoted this article to explaining what fatty liver disease is and the cause of this pervasive condition.
What is fatty liver disease?
If you have fatty liver, it means the organ is filled with too much fat. Your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels can be high, and the type of fat that accumulates is mainly composed of triglycerides. Fatty liver disease is also known as hepatic steatosis and is broken down into alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Another term commonly used by doctors is steatohepatitis, which features inflammation on top of fat accumulation in the liver.
When you start learning about fatty liver, you might become overwhelmed by terms and abbreviations used to describe different types. What do they mean?
- Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD): It is fatty liver due to heavy or very frequent alcohol consumption. Alcohol-related liver disease also includes cirrhosis and other advanced stages of the disease.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): It features an accumulation of fat in the liver, even if you don’t consume alcohol. It can be caused by your diet or your metabolism of fat.
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): As mentioned above, steatohepatitis is inflammation on top of fat accumulation. It is a more dangerous condition that is more common in women after 40 years.
Fatty liver develops gradually and may go unnoticed for a long time. In the beginning, the only signs show up if you perform an ultrasound scan or lab tests. This condition will remain unnoticed until the damage it causes reaches a certain point. Then you will begin to experience pain in the right side of your abdomen, but that’s only in an advanced stage of the disease. If you have fatty liver, you may also have an enlarged liver, which can make it difficult for you to breathe.
We have an entire article to describe the signs and symptoms of fatty liver disease, which covers the topic thoroughly. For now, let’s talk about how common is fatty liver disease and what are the most likely causes.