Excessive and long-term alcohol use has many detrimental effects on your health. One of the organs particularly affected is the liver, which serves as your body’s primary detoxifier. The liver filters out harmful substances like alcohol, but it cannot handle too much.
If you drink too much alcohol often, you are prone to developing alcohol-related liver disease. This condition is a major public health problem in the United States, affecting 10 to 15 percent of Americans who drink heavily.
Here is what can happen to your liver because of alcohol’s effects.
What is excessive drinking?
According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is consuming 8 or more drinks per week for women or 15 or more drinks per week for men.
One drink is equivalent to:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
- 5 ounces (or one shot) of hard liquors like rum, gin, whiskey, or vodka (40% alcohol content)
Thus, moderate drinking consists of less than 8 drinks (for women) or 15 drinks (for men) per week. In other words, that’s about one drink per day (for women) or two (for men).
There is even such a thing as binge drinking, which is defined as downing 4 or more drinks (for women) or 5 or more (for men) within 2 hours.
The general rule is the less often you drink, and the smaller the quantity of each drink, the better it is for your health. No drinking at all is best, but if you can’t help it, reduce the frequency of your drinking as much as possible.
How do alcohol effects damage the liver?
When you drink moderately, the liver has no problem detoxifying the alcohol you take in. Your liver can process the alcohol in one drink every hour.
If you consume more than that, the excess alcohol will accumulate in your blood. In turn, it can reach your brain, heart, and other organs. The more alcohol reaches your brain and heart, the more intoxicated you will get.
As your blood circulates back into the liver, the unprocessed alcohol passes through it again. As more and more alcohol reaches the liver, its cells can get damaged.
Alcohol-related liver disease progresses through three stages. The first stage is called fatty liver. The second stage is alcoholic hepatitis. The final stage is liver cirrhosis.
Symptoms do not usually show up until the disease is at its advanced stages. Only in some cases do symptoms manifest earlier. The symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal discomfort
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst
- Swelling in the legs and abdomen
- Weight loss
- Red hands or feet
- Lightening or darkening of the skin
- Dark stool
- Unusual agitation
- Mood swings
- Bleeding gums
- Enlarged breasts in men
Let’s take a look at each stage of alcohol-related liver disease in detail.
Stage 1: Fatty liver
As the name suggests, this condition occurs when fat deposits accumulate in the liver. While your liver normally contains fat, they are present only in small amounts. It becomes a problem when there is too much fat in the liver.
When you drink too much alcohol, it can interfere with the metabolic processes in the liver. Consequently, fat can more readily form, which accumulates in the liver. When too much fat is present, the liver can no longer remove toxins from the blood effectively.
This early stage of alcohol-related liver disease can be cured if you stop drinking alcohol. But if you continue to drink, it may progress to the next stage.
Stage 2: Alcoholic hepatitis
In stage 2, the liver becomes inflamed. This is caused by the byproducts of alcohol processing, which are toxic to liver cells. The more alcohol you drink, the more these toxins are produced, damaging your liver further.
However, alcoholic hepatitis does not occur in all people who drink heavily. Based on data from the American Liver Foundation, no more than 35 percent of heavy drinkers are afflicted with this condition. Even individuals who drink moderately can develop alcoholic hepatitis.
At this stage, stopping drinking prevents further damage to the liver. In some cases, quitting alcohol can even help reverse the damage. But if alcoholic hepatitis has become more advanced, damage to the liver may already be permanent.
In any case, though, abstaining from alcohol is the best solution to keep the still healthy parts of the liver in good condition.
However, if you persist in drinking at this point, you can further progress into the third and final stage.
Stage 3: Liver cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is when too much liver tissue becomes damaged and turns into scar tissue. Once most of the liver is scarred, it can no longer function properly. The liver cannot remove toxins, metabolize fats, and produce proteins effectively anymore.
At this stage, scarring can no longer be reversed. Any damaged parts of the liver are permanently damaged. But if you stop drinking, you will avoid damaging your liver any further.
Is alcohol-related liver disease fatal?
If not addressed quickly, this condition can potentially turn fatal. But abstaining from alcohol helps a lot. It can prevent further damage to your liver, and in the early stages of the disease, even reverse the damage that’s been done.
Liver damage can lead to malnourishment, which can be treated through nutrient supplements and changes in your diet.
What if I have a drinking problem?
If you have a problem with drinking, it’s best to talk to your primary care doctor. He can refer you to appropriate alcohol addiction recovery programs and addiction specialists. Getting help for a drinking problem is the crucial first step in saving your liver from alcohol damage.
Alcohol rehab may take a while, especially if your case is more severe. But in the end, the time and effort is worth it, as you will be able to live a sober life once again. Plus, it helps you save your liver.