Fatty liver disease: What you need to know

Onc​e considered a middle-aged disease associated with excessive alcohol drinking, fatty liver disease, short for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), now affects more young people who drink little or no alcohol.

“The incidence of fatty liver in Singapore is increasing just like in most parts of the developed world. Many of the relatively young people whom I t​reat for gallstone disease also have fatty liver,” shares Professor Pierce Chow, Senior Consultant from the Division of Surgical Oncology at National Cancer Centre Singapore (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

The good news is a simple fatty liver condition is reversible in most cases.

However, if it is not managed properly, a fatty liver can lead to a more serious liver disease called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) where the fatty liver becomes inflamed. This can cause liver cirrhosis (liver scarring) and liver cancer.

Symptoms of fatty liver disease

Early non-alcoholic fatty liver disease usually shows no symptoms. However, you may experience the following:

  • Tiredness
  • Bloatedness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain in the right upper abdomen

Late symptoms relate to the complications of liver cirrhosis and include nausea, jaundice, swollen abdomen and poor concentration. A fatty liver also carries a higher risk of liver failure, should surgery of the liver be required, says Prof Chow.

Causes of fatty liver disease

A fatty liver is an abnormal accumulation of fats in the liver cells.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is closely linked to obesity, diabetes and the metabolic syndrome, conditions which are also on the rise. Studies have shown that 80 per cent of obese people and 70 per cent of people with diabetes have fatty liver disease.

High cholesterol and high blood pressure are also correlated with fatty liver although fatty liver can be found among the young and thin with no high blood pressure.

Common causes include:

  1. Diabetes

  2. Obesity (having a BMI>25kg/m2 for Asians)

  3. Increased belly fat (central obesity), where the waistline >90cm for Asian men or >80cm for Asian women

  4. High cholesterol (hyperlipidaemia)

  5. High blood pressure (hypertension)

  6. Metabolic syndrome

  7. Other associated conditions like Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), Underactive Thyroid (Hypothyroidism), Underactive Pituitary (Hypopituitary) 

How is fatty liver diagnosed?

Fatty liver disease is diagnosed by a combination of history, physical examination, blood tests and imaging studies of the liver such as:

  • Liver function tests such as liver enzymes (ALT, AST) may be elevated

  • Ultrasound, CT or MRI scan may show fatty liver

  • Other blood tests may be needed to predict severity of disease or exclude other liver diseases

  • Liver biopsy may be required to stage the disease 

Why do you need a healthy liver?

The liver, located in the right upper abdomen, is a key organ. It keeps the body in optimal health by performing metabolic and detoxifying functions.

A healthy liver regulates the amount of fat, protein and glucose in the blood. It processes nutrients from the intestines. It also removes toxins and drugs from the bloodstream.

Treatment of fatty liver disease

Management involves diagnosing and treating the underlying cause of the fatty liver disease. “With counseling, a few of my patients became very motivated and managed to reverse their fatty liver disease through disciplined lifestyle changes,” says Prof Chow.

It is important that young people with fatty liver take steps to control their weight and glucose levels to prevent the condition from deteriorating, adds Prof Chow.

Steps to reverse a fatty liver

  1. Cut down on carbohydrates

  2. Eliminate refined sugar from your diet

  3. Eat plenty of vegetables, whole grains, seeds and nuts, pulses and legumes

  4. Exercise at least five times a week. Each session should last at least 30 minutes. It can be any form of exercise but it should at least raise the pulse rate moderately

Take part in the study to screen for liver cancer

A study led by Professor Pierce Chow at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) is looking for patients with chronic liver disease to take part in its research on liver cancer. For more information, click here.

Ref: T12

Check out other liver condition articles:

Liver Cancer: Risk Factors, Symptoms and Treatment

Liver Cancer: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Risk

Liver Cirrhosis (Liver Scarring): Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

Liver Inflammation: What Causes It and How to Prevent

Fat Buildup in the Liver: Why It's Bad for You

Fatty Liver Disease: How to Reverse It

10 Ways to Keep Your Liver Healthy