Anyone can get liver disease

The relationship between alcohol and liver disease

The liver is an incredibly important organ with around 500 different functions, yet consistent alcohol use can cause liver disease that is impossible to repair. The real problem is, you won’t generally know you’ve got a real issue with your liver until it’s too late.

One of the major reasons I decided to give up drinking alcohol was because of the health impact it has on your body. I do not want to die early because of something I could have prevented. Of course accidents happen, but quitting drinking eliminates many of the causes of early death in modern living.

The liver performs such crucial tasks that it just makes sense to look after it. It breaks down food and converts it into energy to be used, or stored as fat. It also deals with waste products, helping your body get rid of it, and plays a crucial role in fighting disease and infections. Given this small, yet major list of liver functions, it seems crazy to me to punish it with binge drinking or consistent alcohol consumption. The high risk of developing liver diseases with this kind of lifestyle makes no sense.

How does alcohol damage your liver?

Liver disease caused by alcohol consumption can be described in two different ways.

  • Acute – problems that develop over several months
  • Chronic – problems that develop over several years

There are two main reasons why scientists believe alcohol is a serious problem for your liver:

  • Oxidative stress – Liver cells can be damaged when it attempts to break down alcohol, leading to inflammation and scarring during the repair process.
  • Toxins in gut bacteria – Toxins are released from the intestine, thanks to alcohol damage, that make they’re way into the liver. The result is further inflammation and scarring.

Can the liver repair itself after consistent short-term heavy drinking?

Four pints a day will cause 'fatty liver'
Four pints a day will cause ‘fatty liver’

It doesn’t take long to cause the liver serious damage. Around four pints of beer a day for men, and a couple of large glasses of wine a day for women, for two to three weeks and you’ll develop ‘a condition called Alcoholic Hepatitis, or ‘fatty liver’.

This is the first sign that you’re headed down the path of liver disease. One of the jobs of the liver is to turn glucose into fat for storage, to be called on when required for energy. Alcohol causes problems for your liver in performing this important function, and the liver cells get crammed full of fat instead. Your liver swells, you could feel discomfort in your abdomen, and you’ll feel sick and lose your appetite.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, go and see a doctor and request a blood test. This will let you know if you’ve got a ‘fatty liver’. Also, stop drinking immediately, because your liver will start shedding fat from the moment you stop drinking. The damage is reversible. It only takes a couple of weeks for your liver to return to normal fat levels, but if you carry on drinking to excessive levels you’ll graduate to liver disease in no time at all.

How much alcohol will increase your chances of getting liver disease?

Needless to say, the more alcohol you drink, the greater your chances of developing liver disease. According to the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol, healthy men and women should drink no more than two standard drinks on any given day. This will reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

However, research suggests the combination of drinking alcohol and other factors increases your chance developing liver disease. These include:

  • Being a woman – Unfortunately for women, the same amount of alcohol consumed as a man will, generally speaking, result in a higher blood alcohol level. Men have a higher concentration of dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol.
  • Excess weight – Liver damage can be exacerbated by excess drinking when overweight.
  • Genetics – Some people have livers that don’t handle fat as well as others, and if they’re heavy drinkers, they have a higher chance of developing liver disease.
  • Existing medical conditions – Hepatitis B or C will increase your likelihood of developing liver disease.

What are the signs of liver damage?

Healthy liver vs cirrhosis of the liver
Healthy liver vs cirrhosis of the liver

The liver is a very resilient organ, it can take an enormous amount of punishment and still function effectively. However alcohol effects everyone differently, and while one person may drink consistently for 15-20 years without experiencing any issues, others might develop a liver disease in a much shorter period of time.

As mentioned, often you won’t know you have liver disease until it’s too late. However, there are some early signs that if acted upon, can reduce the impact and set you on the road to recovery.

  • Fatigues
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pains

The problems is these symptoms are very common for a number of conditions the body might be experiencing. However, if you have been consistently drinking ever a number of years and you experience any of these, go and see a doctor immediately.

The liver is an incredible organ because it can self-heal, but it can only do this a finite amount of times. There will come a time when your liver will be unable to repair itself anymore.

Excess alcohol use causes damage, and as the liver repairs itself it leaves scarring and inflammation. Cirrhosis of the liver is the common term for when part of your liver has turned into scar tissue. If you continue to drink consistently, and put continued pressure on your liver, you’ll eventually experience far more serious conditions.

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Vomiting blood
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Itching
  • Bruising
  • Swelling in the abdomen, and around the ankles
  • Liver cancer
  • Bleeding in the gut

Once you experience any of these conditions, chances are you’ve developed cirrhosis of the liver. This condition is treatable, but not reversible. You must stop drinking alcohol immediately, or else your liver will stop working altogether and you’ll die. Go and see a doctor immediately, and get the help you need.

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