Alcohol and the Liver

Frequent alcohol abuse can lead to long-term liver damage. Abstaining from alcohol can help reverse some of these effects.

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Alcohol and Liver Damage

There are many health risks of chronic alcohol abuse, ranging from high blood pressure to stroke. People are most familiar with alcohol’s negative effects on the liver.

Heavy drinkers have an increased risk of jaundice, cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer, and many other conditions.

The definition of heavy drinking is consuming eight drinks or more per week for women, and 15 or more for men. Even a single binge-drinking episode can result in significant bodily impairment, damage, or potentially death.

Outpatient and inpatient treatment for alcohol addiction can make quitting easier.

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How Alcohol Affects the Liver

The liver breaks down and filters out harmful substances in the blood, and manufactures proteins, enzymes, and hormones which the body uses to ward off infections. It also converts vitamins, nutrients and medicines into substances that our bodies can use. The liver is also responsible for cleaning our blood, producing bile for digestion and storing glycogen for energy.

The liver processes over 90 percent of consumed alcohol. The rest exits the body via urine, sweat and breathing.

It takes the body approximately an hour to process one alcoholic beverage. This time frame increases with each drink. The higher someone’s blood alcohol content, the longer it takes to process alcohol. The liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time. When someone has too much to drink, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver circulates through the bloodstream. The alcohol in the blood starts affecting the heart and brain, which is how people become intoxicated. Chronic alcohol abuse causes destruction of liver cells, which results in scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), alcoholic hepatitis and cellular mutation that may lead to liver cancer. These conditions usually progress from fatty liver to alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis, although heavy drinkers may develop alcoholic cirrhosis without first developing hepatitis.

As per University Health Network, a safe amount of alcohol depends on a person’s body weight, size and whether they are male or female. Women absorb more alcohol from each drink in comparison to males, so they are at greater risk of liver damage. Consuming 2 to 3 alcoholic drinks daily can harm one’s liver. Furthermore, binge drinking, or drinking 4 or 5 more drinks in a row, can also result in liver damage.

Mixing alcohol with other medications can also be very dangerous for your liver. Never take alcohol and medication simultaneously without speaking with your physician first. When combined, certain medications, such as acetaminophen, like Tylenol, can lead to severe damage to your liver. Other medications that are dangerous to combine with alcohol include antibiotics, blood thinners, antidepressants, sedatives, pain medications, and muscle relaxants.

Symptoms of Liver Disease

Heavy drinkers face a higher risk of developing a range of liver diseases opposed to moderate drinkers. As many as 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop fatty liver disease, although fatty liver disease is typically reversible with abstinence. Alcoholic hepatitis, inflammation that causes liver degeneration, can further develop into cirrhosis and may even be fatal. However, this too is reversible with abstinence.

People who regularly abuse alcohol have a compounded risk of developing liver disease if they develop an infection or are genetically predisposed to liver problems. Those consuming more than two drinks on a daily basis put themselves at risk for liver disease.

Common symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Swelling in legs and ankles
  • Dark urine
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Itchy skin
  • Discolored stool
  • Tendency to bruise easily
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Fever
  • Disorientation
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale, bloody, or tar-colored stool

Liver disease caused by alcohol is avoidable. Most reputable sources cite moderate alcohol consumption as one drink per day for women and two for men. In general, there isn’t a type of alcoholic beverage, whether it be beer, liquor or wine, that is “safer” for the liver.

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Treatment for Liver Disease and Alcoholism

Many forms of liver damage can be reversible if you stop drinking or take other steps.

  • Fatty Liver disease –Reversible with abstinence
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis –Reversible with abstinence
  • Cirrhosis –Abstinence is helpful, however it is usually fatal due to secondary complications, such as kidney failure or hypertension in the vein carrying blood to the liver. It could stabilize with abstinence but is case-by-case sensitive.
  • Liver Cancer –Same as cirrhosis

If you have an alcohol addiction and symptoms of liver damage, it’s important to find help as soon as possible.

Between 15% and 30% of heavy drinkers are diagnosed with cirrhosis each year, but the majority of those with this disease survive if they seek treatment for their addiction. Despite this, between 40% and 90% of the 26,000 annual cirrhosis deaths are alcohol-related.

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