Steatohepatitis is an advanced stage of fatty liver disease most often caused by heavy alcohol use. While serious, it can also be treated with lifestyle changes.
Steatohepatitis is a liver condition caused by liver swelling. It’s an advanced stage of fatty liver disease when symptoms begin to show. Like many liver conditions, steatohepatitis is associated with alcohol use. But there are a variety of additional factors that can lead to steatohepatitis developing.
Without treatment, steatohepatitis can lead to liver scarring and liver damage. Treatment for steatohepatitis is lifestyle based and focuses on stopping or reducing alcohol consumption, eating a healthier diet, and maintaining a moderate weight. Let’s look at everything you need to know about steatohepatitis.
Steatohepatitis is a stage of a condition called fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease occurs when your body stores fat around your liver. Fatty liver disease doesn’t always cause symptoms. When fatty liver disease is advanced enough to cause symptoms, it’s called steatohepatitis.
Your liver is inflamed in the steatohepatitis stage of fatty liver disease. This is in addition to the fat around your liver. Inflammation of your liver can cause damage to your liver and eventually lead to liver scarring and liver failure.
Alcoholic vs. nonalcoholic steatohepatitis
The primary difference between alcoholic and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is the cause. The effects on your liver and the symptoms you experience are generally the same.
- Alcoholic steatohepatitis: Sometimes, steatohepatitis is the result of chronic and heavy alcohol use. This is called “alcoholic steatohepatitis.”
- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: Steatohepatitis also occurs in people who don’t drink alcohol or drink a minimal to moderate amount. In these people, the damage to their livers isn’t caused by alcohol. This is called “nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.”
Similar conditions to steatohepatitis
Steatohepatitis shares similarities with some other conditions. These include:
- Fatty liver: Steatohepatitis is a later stage of fatty liver disease.
- Steatosis: Steatosis is another name for fatty liver disease. Steatohepatitis is a stage of fatty liver disease.
- Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is liver scarring. Steatohepatitis can lead to cirrhosis.
- Hepatitis: Hepatitis is liver inflammation. Steatohepatitis is chronic liver inflammation caused by fat around your liver.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL): NAFL disease is the type of fatty liver disease that develops in people who aren’t heavy drinkers. Steatohepatitis is also a stage of NAFL.
- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis: Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is one of the types of steatohepatitis.
- Hepatomegaly: Hepatomegaly is the medical term for any type of liver swelling or enlargement. Steatohepatitis is a type of hepatomegaly.
There are multiple causes of steatohepatitis. The condition is primarily associated with chronic alcohol use, but nonalcoholic steatohepatitis is linked to multiple risk factors. For instance, obesity is considered to be one of the largest risk factors for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
Additional risk factors include:
- high cholesterol
- high triglycerides
- high blood sugar
- high blood pressure
- an underactive thyroid
- a diet lacking in nutrition
- a diet high in sugar and unhealthy fats
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- sleep apnea
- metabolic syndrome
- an underactive pituitary gland
Researchers don’t know why these factors lead to fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis in some people but not in others. It’s possible there’s a genetic link, but this hasn’t been proven. In addition to medical risk factors, there are a few demographic risk factors for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
- being older than 40 years of age
- being postmenopausal
- having a Hispanic or Asian ethnic background
Living with alcoholism
Alcoholism can be isolating and overwhelming, but support is out there. Whether you’re ready to quit drinking, want to find a moderate middle ground, or simply need someone to talk with, these resources can help:
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) Helpline: You can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The SAMSA line is a free and confidential information way to find resources and get connected with services in your community. Help is available in English and in Spanish. They’re also online.
- SoberTool: If you’re trying to quit, apps can be a great way to find support. SoberTool is a free app for Apple and Android devices that can help you track your progress and stay motivated.
- Alcoholics Anonymous: Alcoholics Anonymous offers thousands of online and offline meetings every week. You can join in using chat rooms, message boards, Zoom, and more.
- Sober Grid: There are two features to Sober Grid. The first connects you to fellow recently sober people, or people who are trying to become sober, in your area for alcohol-free socializing. The second connects with one-on-one peer counseling phone sessions.
Your use of alcohol is also something a therapist can work with you on. Click here to learn more about finding the right therapist for you.
Symptoms of steatohepatitis can be mild and easy to miss. In some cases, you might not experience symptoms until your condition progresses further. Early symptoms commonly include:
- mild pain in the top right section of your abdomen
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
As your condition progresses, it can cause further damage to your liver. This can include liver scarring. If this happens, you might have symptoms such as:
The diagnostic process for steatohepatitis will begin with a medical exam. You and a doctor or healthcare professional will discuss your symptoms, your medical history, and your lifestyle. It’s important to be honest about your alcohol consumption. A doctor won’t judge you, but they’ll be able to make sure you’re getting the best treatment possible.
The doctor might order several tests to confirm a diagnosis of steatohepatitis. This commonly includes:
- Liver function test: A liver function test is a blood test that measures the levels of liver enzymes and other chemicals in your blood. This can help doctors measure how well your liver is working.
- Lipid panel: A lipid panel measures the levels of fats in your blood. People with steatohepatitis sometimes have elevated triglycerides.
- Fibrosis assessment: A fibrosis assessment is a test that can help doctors look for liver scarring.
- Ultrasound or CT scan: A doctor might order an ultrasound or CT scan to get a detailed look at your liver. This can help them see the amount of fat surrounding your liver and the level of inflammation.
- Magnetic resonance elastography (MRE): An MRE is an imaging test that combines an MRI and an ultrasound. This can be used to create an even more detailed image of your liver.
- Liver biopsy: A liver biopsy isn’t always necessary, but it can show a complete picture of your condition. A liver biopsy is done by inserting a long needle through your abdomen to withdraw a sample of liver tissue. This allows doctors to test the exact amount of fat, swelling, and damage.
There are no medications or standard medical treatments for steatohepatitis. The standard treatment is lifestyle changes. But depending on the underlying factors that are contributing to your steatohepatitis, medical treatments could also be needed.
For instance, you might need an adjustment to diabetes or blood pressure medication.
Lifestyle changes for steatohepatitis generally include:
- Reducing or stopping alcohol consumption: Additional alcohol consumption can further damage your liver. If you need help decreasing your alcohol intake, let a doctor know. They can recommend options that will help you meet your goal, and these can be part of your treatment plan.
- Eating a healthy diet: A healthy diet that’s low in saturated fats and high in plants, whole grains, seafood, and other healthy staples can help reduce fat around your liver.
- Controlling your blood sugar: Blood sugar spikes, especially spikes from foods high in sugars, can damage your liver. This is true even if you don’t have diabetes. That’s why it’s important to stick to whole grains and other high-nutrient foods.
- Getting exercise: Exercise can help you manage weight and stress, resulting in a healthier liver. There are lots of ways to start exercising.
- Keeping up a moderate weight: Keeping up a moderate weight can keep down the fat levels around your liver and liver inflammation. Fat around your liver goes down when you lose between 3% and 5% of your body weight, and inflammation goes down when you lose between 5% and 10% of your body weight. A doctor can help you create a plan to keep up a moderate weight.
What foods should I avoid if I have a fatty liver?
Eating healthy and nutritious food is more important than ever if you have a fatty liver. Managing your weight and your blood sugar is a key part of treating fatty liver disease and steatohepatitis.
That’s why it’s best to avoid foods such as:
- white rice
- white bread
- white pasta
- fried foods
- foods with added salt
- red meat
- fruit juices
- cookies and cakes
Cost and coverage of steatohepatitis treatments
Treatment plans for steatohepatitis are largely based on lifestyle changes. There aren’t high costs associated with most treatment options. But you might be able to use your Medicare or other insurance benefits to help you achieve those lifestyle changes.
For instance, many insurance plans, including many Medicare Advantage plans, offer free or low-cost fitness options to members. You might be able to join local gyms, take classes, download fitness apps, and more. This can be a great way to help reduce the fat around your liver.
Can steatohepatitis be reversed?
Lifestyle changes can reduce and even eliminate both inflammation and fat around your liver. This can reverse steatohepatitis.
If inflammation progresses enough to cause scarring, the scar tissue will remain even when the inflammation is gone. This can’t be reversed. But as long as the scarring isn’t covering large areas of your liver, you can still make a full recovery. You’ll still have enough healthy liver tissue left for full organ function, and you won’t experience any further symptoms.
If steatohepatitis isn’t managed through lifestyle changes, it will cause permanent liver scarring. This can lead to serious liver damage. Over time, liver damage can result in liver failure, a condition that’s fatal without an organ transplant.
It’s important to keep in mind that you’ll need to keep up all lifestyle changes. Even if a doctor tells you your liver looks completely healthy again, it’s best to keep up a moderate weight, stick with your diet, and avoid alcohol.
Without sticking to these lifestyle changes, you’ll be at risk of fatty liver and steatohepatitis returning.
Steatohepatitis is the stage of fatty liver disease when symptoms begin to show. It occurs when your liver swells. Steatohepatitis is often associated with chronic long-term alcohol use, but it can also develop in people who rarely or never drink alcohol.
Both alcoholic and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis can lead to liver scarring. Without treatment, liver scarring can permanently damage your liver.
Treatment for steatohepatitis is lifestyle based and includes reducing or stopping alcohol consumption, keeping up a moderate weight, and following a healthy diet. Treatment can eliminate inflammation and resolve steatohepatitis.