Liver disease is one of the leading causes of illness and death in the United States. More than 2 million Americans suffer from liver disease caused by alcohol. In general, liver disease strikes people who drink heavily over many years.
While many of us recognize that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver disease, we might not know why. Understanding the connections between alcohol and the liver can help you make smarter decisions about drinking and take better control of your health.
KNOW THE FUNCTION:
Your liver works hard to keep your body productive and healthy. It stores energy and nutrients. It generates proteins and enzymes your body uses to function and ward off disease. It also rids your body of substances that can be dangerous— including alcohol.
The liver breaks down most of the alcohol a person consumes. But the process of breaking alcohol down generates toxins even more harmful than alcohol itself. These by-products damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body’s natural defenses. Eventually, these problems can disrupt the body’s metabolism and impair the function of other organs.
Because the liver plays such a vital role in alcohol detoxification, it is especially vulnerable to damage from excessive alcohol.
KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES:
Heavy drinking—even for just a few days at a time—can cause fat to build up in the liver. This condition, called steatosis, or fatty liver, is the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease and the most common alcohol-induced liver disorder. The excessive fat makes it more difficult for the liver to operate and leaves it open to developing dangerous inflammations, like alcoholic hepatitis.
For some, alcoholic hepatitis does not present obvious symptoms. For others, though, alcoholic hepatitis can cause fever, nausea, appetite loss, abdominal pain, and even mental confusion. As it increases in severity, alcoholic hepatitis dangerously enlarges the liver, and causes jaundice, excessive bleeding, and clotting difficulties.
Another liver condition associated with heavy drinking is fibrosis, which causes scar tissue to build up in the liver. Alcohol alters the chemicals in the liver needed to break down and remove this scar tissue. As a result, liver function suffers.
If you continue to drink, this excessive scar tissue builds up and creates a condition called cirrhosis, which is a slow deterioration of the liver. Cirrhosis prevents the liver from performing critical functions, including managing infections, removing harmful substances from the blood, and absorbing nutrients.
A variety of complications, including jaundice, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and even liver cancer, can result as cirrhosis weakens liver function.
Risk factors ranging from genetics and gender, to alcohol accessibility, social customs around drinking, and even diet can affect a person’s individual susceptibility to alcoholic liver disease. Statistics show that about one in five heavy drinkers will develop alcoholic hepatitis, while one in four will develop cirrhosis.
KNOW THERE’S A BRIGHT SIDE:
The good news is that a variety of lifestyle changes can help treat alcoholic liver disease. The most critical lifestyle change is abstinence from alcohol. Quitting drinking will help prevent further injury to your liver. Cigarette smoking, obesity, and poor nutrition all contribute to alcoholic liver disease. It is important to stop smoking and improve your eating habits to keep liver disease in check. But when conditions like cirrhosis become severe, a liver transplant may be the primary treatment option.