The liver is the largest organ in the body. It is found high in the right upper abdomen, behind the ribs. It is a very complex organ and has many functions. They include:
- Storing energy in the form of sugar (glucose)
- Storing vitamins, iron, and other minerals
- Making proteins, including blood clotting factors, to keep the body healthy and help it grow
- Processing worn out red blood cells
- Making bile which is needed for food digestion
- Metabolizing or breaking down many medications and alcohol
- Killing germs that enter the body through the intestine
The liver shoulders a heavy workload for the body and almost never complains. It even has a remarkable power to regenerate itself. Still it should not be taken for granted. Certain conditions that develop, such as fatty liver and steatohepatitis, may be signs of liver injury that can lead to permanent liver damage.
What is Fatty Liver?
Fatty liver is just what its name suggests: the build-up of fat in the liver cells. Although this is not a normal condition, fat in the liver usually causes no damage by itself. However in some people (less than 10%) it may create chronic inflammation, with possible formation of fibrous scar tissue. This could possibly lead to scarring or cirrhosis in the liver.
The exact cause of fatty liver disease is unknown. It is likely a combination of increased absorption of fat in the liver and impaired metabolism of fat into a form which van be easily eliminated. Fatty liver is associated with a number of conditions including diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol and triglycerides and most importantly obesity. However, eating fatty foods alone does not necessarily produce a fatty liver.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
There are usually no symptoms that are noticeable to the patient. In fact, fatty liver is frequently uncovered during routine physical examination. There may be a rise in certain liver enzymes found in the blood, and sometimes the liver is slightly enlarged. Fatty liver may also be discovered while the physician is evaluating a patient for other illnesses. For example, an ultrasound exam of the abdomen done for other reasons may show fat in the liver. Your doctor may check for other causes of liver disease including hepatitis. Rarely, a liver biopsy may be needed to examine the liver tissue more closely under the microscope in order to determine if there has been any chronic scarring or damage.
Treatment of fatty liver disease involves treatment of other associated and underlying conditions. This may include reduction of high cholesterol and triglycerides, good control of diabetes and not drinking alcohol.
Since being overweight is by far the most critical factor, weight loss is the key to treatment. This should be slowly over the course of six to twelve months because rapid weight loss may contribute to worsening of liver disease. Following a diet that is low in calories and saturated fat and high in fiber is recommended.
Fatty liver is simply the build-up of fat in the liver. Fat in the liver alone usually does not cause liver damage. However, certain other conditions and diseases can be associated with the fatty liver. Research is ongoing to uncover what processes may take place to trigger fat build-up in the liver. This condition is usually reversible when the underlying causes are treated or removed.