Alcohol and Liver Damage

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This page looks at how alcohol can affect the liver, the different conditions that can affect it, and how it can be treated.

As the largest solid organ in the body, the liver has a few core responsibilities. It eliminates toxins from the blood, sustains a healthy sugar level, helps with blood clotting, and performs various other vital functions. It also produces albumin, a protein that prevents the bloodstream’s fluids from leaking into surrounding tissue. However, some of the most damage occurs as a result of breaking down toxic substances, such as alcohol.

How Alcohol Affects the Liver

The body needs about one hour to process a single alcoholic beverage. So with every additional drink, this timeframe increases. And the higher blood alcohol content you have, the longer it takes to process it. Naturally, the liver can only metabolize a specific amount of alcohol at a certain time. When people have too much to drink, the unprocessed alcohol continues to move through the body, affecting different organs like the brain and heart. That’s when you start to see signs of intoxication.

Chronic alcohol abuse destroys cells in the liver and replaces it with scar tissue. Moreover, mixing alcohol with medications can be highly dangerous for the liver. It’s important not to take alcohol and medication without speaking to your doctor. Medications that you shouldn’t combine with alcohol include painkillers, sedatives, antidepressants, and antibiotics.

Symptoms of Liver Damage

People with heavy drinking habits have a higher risk of developing liver-related diseases compared to moderate drinkers. About a fifth of heavy drinkers end up developing fatty liver disease, but it’s usually reversible through abstinence. Fortunately, the condition is reversible with abstinence.

Inflammation in the liver that occurs as a result of alcoholic hepatitis can exacerbate and develop into cirrhosis. This level of liver degeneration can be potentially fatal, but is reversible through abstinence. Some of the most common symptoms of a damaged liver include:

  • Discolored stool and urine
  • Swelling in the legs and ankles
  • Skin that bruises easily
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Yellowing skin and eyes because of jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness

As liver damage due to alcohol consumption is unavoidable, the best way to avoid the issue is to curb alcohol intake.

Three Stages of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Whenever the liver filters alcohol, some liver cells die in the process. Luckily, the liver is quite resilient and can regenerate itself. While it can develop new cells, excess alcohol misuse for years can hinder this ability. Consequently, it can cause permanent damage to the liver.

In the US, the number of people with alcohol-related liver disease is increasing due to high levels of alcohol misuse. The condition occurs in three stages as follows:

Fatty Liver Disease

This occurs when you drink large amounts of alcohol, even for a couple of days. This causes the accumulation of fat deposits in the liver. You rarely experience symptoms due to fatty liver disease, but it’s a sign that you’re consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol. As the condition is reversible, abstaining from alcohol for a couple of months can help the liver return to normal.

Alcoholic Hepatitis (Inflammation of the Liver)

This isn’t the same as infectious hepatitis, and occurs due to alcohol abuse for prolonged periods. A less common cause for alcoholic hepatitis is if you drink excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period. In the case of mild alcoholic hepatitis, liver damage is often reversible through permanent abstinence. On the other hand, severe alcoholic hepatitis can be life-threatening.

Liver Cirrhosis

This is the third stage of alcohol-related liver disease, when the liver has a large amount of scar tissue. Even at this stage, many people at this stage fail to see any obvious symptoms. Although it’s not reversible, stopping one’s alcohol consumption can prevent further damage, which helps improve your life expectancy.

Diagnosing Alcoholic Liver Disease

Besides various symptoms that you may experience, your doctor will also take a complete history and conduct a physical exam. They may prescribe certain tests to diagnose alcoholic liver disease, such as:

  • A liver biopsy to obtain tissue samples from your liver using a needle or during surgery. The sample is then observed under a microscope to determine the type and severity of liver disease.
  • Blood tests to test the liver’s functionality. Your doctor will compare the results against standard markers to spot signs of liver damage.
  • An MRI of the liver can show its structure, along with any abnormal growths. It also allows your doctor to see how blood flows within the liver, and is a useful way to detect conditions such as fatty liver disease, hemochromatosis, and hepatitis.
  • CT scans give a more detailed image of the internal organs, allowing your doctor to clearly see abnormalities, abscesses, or unusual growth on the liver.
  • Ultrasound elastography is a special technique that helps detect liver fibrosis. The technique involves measuring the movement of the liver using ultrasound waves and then calculating its elasticity. Usually, fibrotic livers are stiffer and move more because of the ultrasound wave than normal livers.

Safe Levels of Alcohol Consumption

The safe amount of alcohol consumption depends on a person’s sex and weight. Compared to men, women tend to absorb more of the alcohol from their drinks. That’s because they have less body water than the average man with similar body weight. Because of this, they’re highly susceptible to liver damage.

According to the CDC, men are recommended to have 2 drinks a day or less, while women can have 1 drink a day or less. One drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of beer with a 5% ABV, or 5 ounces of wine with 12% ABV.

Treating Liver Damage

As of yet, there’s no specific treatment for alcohol-related liver disease. The only way to alleviate symptoms is to abstain from alcohol consumption. If you’re suffering from severe damage, this can mean abstaining permanently.

Understandably, this can be very difficult for a person suffering from an alcohol dependency, but they can seek medical treatment, advice, and support through addiction support services.

In the event that the liver has stopped functioning entirely, you may require a liver transplant. You can only be considered eligible for a transplant if you’re suffering from cirrhosis-related complications despite cessation. After the transplant, you’ll be required to stop drinking alcohol permanently.

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