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What is fatty liver disease?

Adventist Health Health and Wellness, Fitness

More than half the population in the United States has some degree of fatty liver disease, but most don't know it. While it's normal to have some fat on your liver, too much is bad for your health. Fatty liver disease occurs when five to 10 percent (or more) of the liver's weight comes from fat.

There are two types of fatty liver disease, alcoholic liver disease (ALD) and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). ALD is caused by excessive alcohol consumption over a prolonged period of time. NAFLD is caused by a long-term diet of foods high in fat. However, fatty liver disease affects many people who aren't overweight or don't struggle with alcohol consumption.

Causes of fatty liver disease

Besides diet and alcohol consumption, there are several factors that can put you at risk for having fatty liver disease:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having high blood sugar, or type II diabetes
  • High triglycerides, or fat levels, in the blood
  • Excessive consumption of processed food
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle

Symptoms of fatty liver disease

The disease is generally not symptomatic, but as it progresses to later stages some symptoms may appear:

  • Feeling tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion or trouble concentrating

When fatty liver disease progresses, it causes damage to the liver, also known as cirrhosis. The symptoms of cirrhosis are the same as above, but include weight loss, yellowing of the skin and eyes, spiderlike blood vessels and itching. Cirrhosis is very dangerous, and over time can lead to severe health complications and even liver failure.

Diagnosing fatty liver disease

Since fatty liver disease typically doesn't present any symptoms, it's usually brought to a physician's attention during routine test results for other medical issues. Several blood tests, as well as imaging and even liver biopsy are used to diagnose fatty liver disease.

In Portland, Adventist Health is one of a few, select hospitals in the metro area to offer FibroScan® as a tool for diagnosis. This new technology is used to detect chronic liver diseases, including liver cirrhosis and fatty liver disease, the top two causes of chronic liver disease in North America.

How FibroScan works

Fibroscan® is a quick and painless way to assess liver damage. It only takes about five minutes to complete the procedure. Similar to an ultrasound, gel is applied to the skin, and then ultrasound waves are used to measure liver scarring. Besides not eating or drinking for a few hours before the procedure, there is no discomfort. Results are available immediately.

Prevention and management

If you receive a diagnosis of fatty liver disease, there's good news! Through diet, exercise and various lifestyle changes, the disease can be reversed.

"After a diagnosis, we help our patients create a plan to improve their liver health to eliminate fatty liver disease," says Dr. Jaime Aranda-Michel, a nationally-recognized hepatologist at Adventist Health Portland. "This plan may include helping them improve their diet, exercising more or quitting drinking. FibroScan is a useful tool we have at Adventist for continuing to monitor liver health as these lifestyle changes are undertaken and liver health improves."

The following changes will help manage, and even reverse fatty liver disease:

Getting tested

If you think you may be at risk for fatty liver disease, talk with your doctor today about getting tested. For help finding a primary care provider, call Adventist Health at 503-261-6929 or visit