Fatty liver disease

Liver is one of the vital organs in the human body that is responsible for converting the food consumed into energy by breaking down fat. When metabolism of fat by liver is disrupted, there is accumulation of excess fat in the liver which causes swelling of the liver.

Accumulation of excess fat in the liver is called fatty liver disease (FLD) or Steatosis.  When there is abnormal retention of lipids within the cells occur, fat accumulation takes place.

Causes of FLD

Such fat accumulation is generally either due to consumption of alcohol or due to metabolic syndrome like obesity, diabetes, dyslipidemia and hypertension. Other reasons for occurrence of fatty liver include, nutritional deficiencies, effect of certain drugs and toxins, inflammatory bowel disease, HIV, Hepatitis C etc. FLD is a reversible health condition.

Diagnosis and Symptoms

Fatty liver disease is diagnosed by simple physical examination of the liver by a doctor who easily observes the bulging of the liver so as to suspect fatty liver. Conducting a blood test initially may provide some clue and an ultra sound imaging can give direction to the cause whereas only a liver biopsy will provide definite indication of a fatty liver and its cause/s.

FLD do not show any symptom normally. However fatigue and occasional discomfort in the stomach may be pointing to the probability of fatty liver.

Types of fatty liver diseases

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD)
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis
  • Acute fatty liver of pregnancy


Alcoholic fatty liver

This is an early stage of fatty liver disease where the liver damaged due to consumption of alcohol is unable to break down the fat and accumulation of fat takes place. This type of fatty liver can be reversed just by totally avoiding alcoholic drinks. Once the person abstains from drinking alcohol, the fat in the liver disappears within a couple of months. It should be remembered that fat accumulation in AFLD is due to reduced function of the liver which is damaged by alcohol consumption and the same is reversed by abstaining from alcohol.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver

When the liver becomes fat by just about 10% of the normal size even without consumption of alcohol, the condition is called non-alcoholic fatty liver. This type of excess accumulation fat happens when the liver is unable to breakdown the fat with even normal food intake. Such inadequate functioning of the liver may be due to obesity or other dietary style adopted over a period of time. Too much of bacteria in the small intestine and distinct changes in other parts of intestine are also causes of fatty liver. Generally people who are middle aged with obesity and having high cholesterol or diabetes are vulnerable to be affected by fatty liver. Malnutrition and high triglycerides levels are also responsible for a fatty liver.

Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis

Steatohepatitis, is a condition where inflammation occurs internally, accumulation of fat in the liver but not due to alcohol is called nonalcoholic fatty liver wherein the liver swells. While in the case of alcoholic fatty liver the fat disappears on abstaining from alcohol, here in this case it has got to be treated medically. Symptoms noticed in case of NAFLD are loss of appetite, pain in the abdomen, nausea, vomiting and jaundice (yellow skin). Untreated NAFL creates scar in the liver permanently and lead to eventual liver failure.

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy

Very rarely pregnant women may develop fatty liver only during pregnancy which disappears after childbirth. However it is a serious condition which need to be attended and cured as otherwise it could become fatal. Symptoms that can be noticed in such women are continuous nausea and vomiting, jaundice, general malaise and development of pain in the right upper portion of the abdomen. Development of fatty liver in pregnant women is risky for both the mother and the child as kidneys of either or both can get damaged in addition to profuse bleeding. Hence in case a person is tested positive for fatty liver must ensure that the child is delivered as soon as possible.

Fatty liver is accumulation of fat in the liver due to less than normal functioning of the liver in breaking down the fat getting into the body through consumption of food. Hence people with type 2 diabetes are more prone to this disease since accumulation of fat is directly related to insulin resistance encountered by diabetics.

Treatment of each type of fatty liver disease depend upon the causes of fatty liver for a particular person diagnosed to a particular type. The underlying cause need to be treated. For example fatty liver due to

  • Alcohol fatty liver is cured by abstaining from alcohol.
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver caused by obesity is cured by gradual reduction of body weight by adopting appropriate balanced diet.
  • Metabolic syndrome is treated by addressing the specific disorder.
  • Monitoring the iron in the body as too much iron can also decrease the capacity of the liver.


Fortunately, all fatty liver cases do not become liver diseases.

Only preventive measure available is to protect the liver by being cautious about the regular food intake and avoiding food and beverages that are detrimental to each person according to his/her particular health condition. In addition alcohol and tobacco products must be totally avoided.

Kripa Sivasubramanian, MBA, earned her Master’s degree in Business. After a long stint in the Technology sector, she took up courses in natural medicine and yoga. Ms. Kripa is certified in Ayurvedic yoga for Dosha. She is also certified by Stanford University School of Medicine in Introduction to Food and Health.