Fatty liver is the umbrella term for the condition where liver cells contain more fats than is considered normal. Someone is considered to have fatty liver disease when the fat content in the liver exceeds 5-10% of the organ’s weight. Common risk factors for fatty liver are excessive alcohol intake and obesity.
At its early stages, fatty liver disease is a mild condition that often shows no symptoms. As such, many people live with fatty liver without having the condition diagnosed. Yet, fatty liver is not a disease to be simply glossed over. If left uncontrolled, fatty liver can escalate into serious and irreversible health problems down the road.
The potential complications of fatty liver disease are described below:
- Liver inflammation and scarring: Direct effects of accumulated fats to the liver typically proceed in three stages – hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis.
- Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver caused by excess fats in the organ.
- Fibros is refers to the scarring that occurs when the liver heals itself from the inflammation. If damage is persistent, the repeated healing process results in a thick buildup of fibrous scar tissue.
- Cirrhosis is the later stage of fibrosis when the scarring has caused impeded functions in the liver.
- Liver failure: When the liver has sustained enough damage to impair its functions, it is referred to as liver failure. Signs of a failing liver include jaundice, nausea, diarrhoea, fatigue, and hemorrhoids (piles), amongst others. In addition, more serious complications can arise due to liver failure, like internal bleeding and kidney failure.
- Ascites: Referring to the buildup of fluid in the abdomen, ascites can occur due to liver scarring at the cirrhosis stage. As scar tissue builds up, it puts pressure on the walls of blood vessels, pushing liquid into the abdominal cavity. The swollen abdomen can lead to shortness of breath, restricted mobility, and a higher risk of infection and hernia.
- Esophageal varices: These are swollen veins in the oesophagus that may arise from liver scarring. When scar tissue accumulates, blood flow to the liver is reduced, causing increased pressure in the blood vessels at the esophagus. It is considered a medical emergency if the esophageal varices rupture and bleed. Thus, patients with advanced liver disease should periodically be screened for the onset of swelling veins in the esophagus. Varices are usually diagnosed through endoscopy.
- Increased risk of metabolic diseases: Fatty liver causes the overproduction of glucose and triglycerides, which are two key components of metabolic syndrome. With metabolic syndrome, there is also an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart diseases.
- Increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers: Persons with fatty liver have shown a higher likelihood of developing cancers in the gastrointestinal tract, like liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer. Some studies estimate that the risk is 90% higher in fatty liver patients as compared to patients without the disease.
The good news is, fatty liver can be managed with some lifestyle changes before it compounds into a severe health issue. If you are at risk of developing fatty liver, or are already diagnosed with the condition, you can reduce the damage done to your liver by reducing your alcohol intake, adopting a healthier diet, and losing weight if you are overweight.