Fat around the liver is a description often used by the general public for a disorder that is also called fatty liver disease or fatty liver syndrome. It occurs when excessive fat builds up on the liver.
Long-term alcohol use is one of the most frequent causes of fat around the liver. But there is also a form of this condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that affects individuals who drink little or no alcohol. The non-alcoholic type seems to be related to an inability of the liver to break down fats. These fats stay in the liver and accumulate. The precise reason this occurs is unknown, and there are so many other diseases and disorders linked to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease that it’s hard to isolate any one factor.
Here’s what is known about why fat around the liver happens.
Your liver performs many functions related to the body’s metabolic processes. One task is producing triglycerides. Triglycerides come from fats in the food you eat, or are manufactured in your body from other energy sources like carbohydrates. Triglycerides help grow new cells and also contribute to the production of some very important hormones. But an excess amount triglycerides is one of the major reasons fat around the liver accumulates. This fat irritates liver tissue, which causes inflammation. As the liver becomes inflamed, tissue is destroyed and replaced by scarring. This scarring process is known as cirrhosis. If the advance of cirrhosis isn’t arrested, liver failure is possible at some point, although this doesn’t happen often in those with fatty liver disease.
Diagnosing fatty liver disease without liver function tests can be difficult. In general, there are no symptoms for liver problems until a significant amount of damage has occurred. When symptoms of fat around the liver do appear, they may include pain and swelling in the abdomen on the right side near the bottom of the rib cage. Itchiness and occasional fevers are also likely. The most obvious symptom occurs when the skin and the whites of the eyes begin to look yellow, a liver condition known as jaundice.
At the moment, doctors generally try to treat fatty liver disease by taking steps to reduce the amount of fat around the liver. Obesity is a major risk factor, so your doctor will suggest lifestyle changes like getting more exercise and eating a healthier diet. If a medication you’re taking is contributing to your fatty liver disease, your doctor may suggest switching to something different. If you have diabetes, it’s important to keep it under control by taking your medications as directed and paying close attention to your blood sugar.
Fat around the liver is a growing health problem, especially in the United and Canada. No one is sure how many people in the U.S. and Canada have excessive fat around the liver, but some studies suggest the number could be as high as 20 percent. Fatty liver disease recently overtook cirrhosis as the most common liver-related condition in these countries, and some health authorities have described it as nearly an epidemic.