Giant fatty liver cut down to size in one week

For many years we have known that to get a good going fatty liver we should treat ourselves like the farmers who feed the geese that make pate de fois gras.  That is, eat lots of dietary carbohydrate, particularly grains and other refined stuff like sugars and starch.

For most patients afflicted with fatty liver, the changes that come on are insidious, and are only picked up on abnormal liver function tests, particularly AST and ALT, or perhaps an ultrasound scan, that reveals the bright echo appearance that all that extra fat in the liver gives.The problem is that fatty liver can progress eventually to cirrhosis. In my practice we have already had one death from liver failure from cirrhosis brought on by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

One of my patients, not a diabetic, was sent home from hospital recently with a diagnosis of alcohol induced fatty liver. She was very distressed, not only because she had a massive abdominal swelling, but also because she had been labelled as an alcoholic.

She had gone into hospital with severe inflammatory bowel disease. She had been feeling so poorly that she had lost her appetite and had been drinking about 6 bottles of fizzy, sugary juice a day. At the same time, in an effort to gain control of her symptoms, she was on immune modifying drugs and a very large dose of oral steroids.  Indeed she still is. Her blood results showed no hepatocellular injury, a bit uncommon with fatty liver disease, but a huge fatty liver on ultrasound. On examination it was nearly at her pelvic bone but I was able to put my fingers below it. It was very tender but smooth with no irregularities.

I advised her that she needed to go on a very low carbohydrate diet to get the best chance of reversal of the fatty liver. She was to have no sugar, no starch and no alcohol. She was to eat freely of meat, fish, eggs,  cheese, butter, cream, olive oil, low starch vegetables and could have up to two portions of fruit a day.

She was due to return in two weeks for examination and blood testing but came back after only a week because she was finding the diet really tough going.  Surprisingly her liver had shrunk to only two finger breadths below her rib cage and the tenderness was much reduced. Her abdomen was looking almost normal.

She had been eating mainly tuna and lettuce and drinking water. Given the massive improvement, I then gave her some advice on expanding her diet, but advised that she learn carb counting, and keep the total amount to 20g or under per meal. She has a diabetic relative who has carb counting books and she was assured of family support in this regard.

What I think was happening is that the steroids were making her extremely insulin resistant and particularly prone to storing fat in the liver. Her pure sucrose diet compounded the problem and ended up in her liver. I have not yet seen such an acute and extreme case of fatty liver as this.

Fortunately I had heard of the beneficial effects of carbohydrate restriction for this condition. I am still amazed how well the diet worked in such a short time.

This woman is still at risk from fatty liver because of the ongoing steroids, but as her gut symptoms have finally settled, we hope that the dose reduction can continue.

I wonder how long it will take for hospital physicians to tell patients with fatty liver that they should stop ingesting refined carbohydrates as well as alcohol.