In my 9 years of medical practice, it still does not cease to amaze me, that the public as well as the general physician’s perspective on fatty liver disease could be so wrong.
Every day of the week I see at least 10 patients with fatty liver, who have been told by their family physician that fatty liver is “no big deal”, and it is nothing to worry about. I tell them it is “ absolutely something to worry about”. Let me explain why.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition where there is fat accumulation in the liver of people who drink little or no alcohol.This condition is very common and generally causes no signs or symptoms, and generally no complications. Most people feel “OK” with this condition.
A wide range of diseases and conditions can increase your risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, including: gastric bypass surgery, high cholesterol, high levels of triglycerides in the blood, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome, sleep apnea, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and of course, obesity.
In some people with fatty liver, the fat that accumulates can cause inflammation and scarring in the liver. This form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, commonly called NASH. In its most severe form, fatty liver can progress to liver cirrhosis (scarring), liver failure, and even liver cancer. About 20% of patients with fatty liver disease related steatohepatitis can progress to liver cirrhosis, so the risk is not trivial. In these such cases, liver transplant is discussed, and may be the only option to survive.
Evaluation of fatty liver begins with simple blood tests to assess liver function. These blood tests are the ALT, AST, bilirubin, and possibly alkaline phosphatase.
Unfortunately, many times these liver tests are elevated, and ignored by both physician and patient. These elevated (and abnormal) liver tests may be the first indication that trouble is brewing in the liver. This is almost always followed by some sort of liver imaging test, such as an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI of the liver and abdomen. If I suspect a more advanced stage of fatty liver disease, I will recommend we perform a liver biopsy, a procedure that involves removing a small sample of tissue from the liver, and examining it under a microscope to look for signs of inflammation and scarring.
Unfortunately, despite extensive research in this field, no single standard and targeted therapy exists for fatty liver disease in 2015. In other words , no medication is currently the perfectly effective treatment for fatty liver disease. Almost always my patient will ask me , “Hey Doc, what pill can I take to fix this problem? And I reply there is none.
So we typically work to reduce the risk factors that have caused the fatty liver disease which are well known as I have eluded to above. If the patient is obese, we ask them to lose weight. Weight loss can be tough in the modern day lifestyle, but a committed approach involving caloric reduction and increasing physical activity usually works. Patients with diabetes and or high cholesterol are placed on medications to better control these disorders of their metabolism.
No alternative medicine treatments are proven to cure nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The use of herbs, and many other widely available over the counter supplements not only don’t work, but can be dangerous. Some studies have shown that natural substances such as Vitamin E and coffee may help to reduce the damage caused by inflammation. However, more research is needed, and patients should discuss the use of these substances with their liver specialist.