Alcohol is processed in the liver, which breaks down toxins and excretes them from the body. Abusing alcohol puts excessive strain on this vital organ, and there is only so much the liver can do before it is damaged.
Drinking too much can cause inflammation and fibrosis, the development of fatty tissue that can lead to permanent scarring and liver disease.
Alcohol Abuse And Liver Damage
Three types of liver damage can result from alcohol abuse: fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Liver damage may progress from one condition to the next, but some people develop cirrhosis without having a fatty liver or hepatitis first.
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis generally go unnoticed until the condition has progressed to severe stages.
Fatty Liver Disease
Also called alcoholic fatty liver, this condition is marked by fat deposits in the liver above the normal amount. This can put stress on the liver and may cause inflammation. It is a reversible disease that does not often lead to worsened stages of liver damage.
Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that prevents it from working properly. It is often signified by jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. It can also cause fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
People with alcoholic hepatitis who continue drinking alcohol have a significant risk of liver failure and death. If they stop drinking, the condition may be reversible.
Every time the liver is damaged by excessive drinking, it attempts to repair itself by forming scar tissue. Cirrhosis is an advanced stage of liver disease in which scar tissue has taken over most of the liver, impairing its ability to function.
A person with cirrhosis has an increased risk of liver failure and cancer. They may need a liver transplant if the condition is severe. The damage from cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but it may be slowed or stopped if a person stops drinking alcohol and takes steps toward a healthier life.
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How Does The Liver Process Alcohol?
The liver breaks alcohol down into metabolites before expelling it from the body. The primary metabolite is a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. This is quickly oxidized into acetate, which is used as energy throughout the body.
However, the more alcohol a person consumes, the more acetaldehyde is produced, which can cause inflammation that leads to alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also increase the number of free radicals (harmful, unstable molecules) that are present in the liver. Antioxidants, such a glutathione and vitamins A and E, generally get rid of free radicals, but alcohol abuse can decrease antioxidant levels as well.
Liver Disease Risk Factors
Liver disease is one of the most common causes of death among Americans today and is often the result of alcohol abuse. However, not everyone who abuses alcohol develops alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis. Other risk factors make these conditions more likely to occur.
Moderate drinking is considered one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. People who abuse alcohol drink much more than this and usually continue to increase their consumption as their body builds a tolerance.
While both heavy drinking and binge drinking are considered alcohol abuse, people who drink excessively on a daily basis are more at risk of liver disease than people who binge drink.
Other liver disease risk factors include:
- Sex: Women are more likely to get cirrhosis from alcohol abuse, and the disease may continue progressing even if they stop drinking.
- Hepatitis C: Hepatitis C is an inflammatory disease of the liver that is transmitted through blood, often as a result of shared needles for injection drug use. This disease makes it more likely that someone will develop cirrhosis.
- Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to liver damage resulting from alcohol abuse.
- Nutrition: Many people who abuse alcohol and suffer from alcohol addiction are malnourished. They get most of their calories from alcohol and usually do not consume a healthy diet, which could reduce the risk of liver damage and disease.
- Smoking tobacco: “Alcoholics who smoke more than one pack of cigarettes per day experience three times the risk of cirrhosis of those who do not smoke,” notes the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
Alcohol abuse can affect the brain as well as the liver, leading someone to develop an addiction that has devastating consequences. Seeking help for alcohol addiction before liver damage progresses can save a person’s life.
Our inpatient rehab program at The Bluffs offers a comfortable environment away from distractions and triggers to alcohol abuse. The most effective treatment for alcohol addiction depends on the person, which is why we create individualized treatment plans.
Some elements of treatment are behavioral therapy, recreation, and experiential methods that encourage a person to change the way they think and live so they can find fulfillment in recovery.
- Mayo Clinic — Alcoholis Hepatitis
- Mayo Clinic — Cirrhosis
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Exploring Alcohol’s Effects on the Liver
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion — Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Appendix 9. Alcohol