Liver disease

What is fatty liver?  The term “fatty liver” refers to extra fat in the liver.  The liver normally has less than 5% fat.  A “fatty liver” means that the liver has more than 5% fat.  Typically, this fat is seen on ultrasound, CT scan or MRI; however, in some patients, it is diagnosed by a liver biopsy.

What causes fatty liver?  There are many causes of “fatty liver.”  Worldwide, the most common cause is from excessive alcohol consumption.  In patients who do not drink excessive alcohol, “fatty liver” can be caused by viral infections, certain medications, genetic conditions, very rapid weight loss, or weight gain.

A condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) usually refers to fatty liver that develops as a result of too much fat circulating in the bloodstream.  Many of these patients are overweight or obese; have a family or personal history of diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure (metabolic syndrome); and have a reduced response to an important hormone called insulin.  NAFLD affects approximately 30% of the US population.

What is NASH?  NASH stands for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.  This is the combination of fatty liver with liver inflammation.  Some patients with NASH can develop scarring of their liver (fibrosis).  Patients with liver fibrosis can also develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

How much alcohol is too much?  The amount of alcohol that is considered excessive is different for men and women.  Men should consume no more than 2 drinks a day; women should consume no more than 1 drink a day.

How do I cure fatty liver?  First, we recommend you seek medical care by a provider who has experience treating patients with fatty liver diseases.  In general, the cure for fatty liver depends on the cause.  For example, if your fatty liver is due to alcohol, then we recommend you abstain from drinking alcohol.  We have provided some resources here to support those who are dependent on alcohol.

If your fatty liver is due to obesity or metabolic syndrome, we recommend dietary changes and weight loss of 10% of your current body weight.  Your provider will discuss with you specific ways to achieve this goal.

Are there research studies on fatty liver? Yes, there are several ongoing studies.  If you are interested in learning more about these research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania, please discuss this with your provider and request a referral.  Patient appointments can be made by calling 215-349-8222.