Fatty liver is not a liver disease as such. It simply means there is more fat in the liver than normal. A person with a fatty liver is not necessarily ill.
Fatty liver can be caused by certain chemical compounds and by
nutritional and endocrine disorders. Alcohol is by far the most
common drug cause. Nutritional causes of fatty liver are
starvation, obesity, protein malnutrition and intestinal bypass
operations for obesity. The endocrine disorder diabetes mellitus
often leads to fatty liver. These causes of fatty liver are called
non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD.
In all of these conditions the fatty deposits are occasionally
accompanied by some inflammatory changes and scarring of the liver.
Doctors call this condition non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or
Fatty liver of pregnancy is a serious condition occurring near
term. Premature termination of pregnancy may be necessary. Delivery
of the baby by Caesarean section may be a life-saving measure.
What are the symptoms?
Uncomplicated fatty liver does not usually produce symptoms
because fat accumulates slowly. The liver may be enlarged on
physical examination. In fatty liver of pregnancy there may be
nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and jaundice.
How does fat get into the liver?
Fat enters the liver from the intestines and from the tissues.
Under normal conditions, fat from the diet is metabolised by the
liver and other tissues. If the amount exceeds what is required by
the body it is stored. In obesity some of the fat accumulates in
Can fatty liver lead to other liver disease?
Fatty liver in people who drink too much alcohol is sometimes
followed by more serious liver damage in the form of alcoholic
hepatitis. Serious liver damage is less common in diabetes and
obese people who donʼt drink but if the fat has progressed to NASH
then further progression to scarring and even cirrhosis can
How is fatty liver treated?
There is no proven effective drug treatment. However, there are
some steps you can take that may help prevent or reverse some of
the damage. In general, if you have fatty liver, and in particular
if you have NASH, you should:
- Eat a balanced, healthy diet
- Lose weight gradually. That usually means losing no more than
0.5 to 1.0kg a week.
- Increase your physical activity
- Lower your triglycerides through diet, medication or both
- Avoid alcohol
- Control your diabetes, if you have it
How can I avoid fatty liver?
Do not drink to excess - alcohol can decrease the rate of
metabolism and secretion of fat, leading to fatty liver. Overweight
patients may have fatty liver, and are also at risk for several
more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke,
diabetes and heart disease. It is a good idea to watch
your diet: starvation, excess dieting and protein malnutrition can
also result in fatty liver.
For further information visit the Gastroenterological Society of Australia