The liver is our largest internal organ, playing over 500 different roles. Among its many important functions is detoxification, digestion, metabolism, and protein synthesis, however if one had to name its main role, the liver is a detoxifier. This means it helps the body to get rid of waste products, as well as plays a vital role in fighting infections.
When the liver becomes damaged, you typically will not know until it gets to a point where it is a medical emergency, maybe even life threatening. Regular, prolonged use of alcohol can result in irreparable damage to the liver, causing various forms of liver disease. Alcoholic liver disease accounts for over a third of all liver disease deaths every year.
Picture the damage alcohol does to your liver as a long, straight road. There are multiple stops along the way, and at the end of the road is death by liver cancer. Each stop is another way alcohol damages the liver, getting progressively worse.
Fatty Liver Disease
When you drink an alcoholic beverage, one-third of the liquid goes into your stomach and the other two-thirds ends up in your small intestine. The alcohol itself is absorbed into your blood from there.
Your kidneys filter some alcohol out, but the remainder is sent to your liver. Here, the alcohol is metabolized, or broken down, into a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is toxic. Your body knows it’s bad for you, so the acetaldehyde is burned as instead of fat like usual.
Drink too much, and two things happen: the fat that should be used by the body gets stored in your liver, and excess acetaldehyde damages liver cells. Too much fat in the liver causes fatty liver disease. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss. Fatty liver disease cannot be cured. Symptoms can last an entire lifetime. More than 3 million Americans suffer from it every year.
Over time, acetaldehyde causes damage to liver cells. Eventually, due to the damage, the liver becomes inflamed. When the liver becomes inflamed, it cannot function properly. This is a condition known as alcoholic hepatitis. You do not have to be a heavy drinker to be at risk. In fact, all but occasional drinkers and non-drinkers are at risk.
Symptoms include abdominal pain/bloating, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, jaundice, fever, confusion, fatigue, and even male impotence and/or testicular shrinkage. The damage of alcoholic hepatitis can be reversed, but requires long-term abstinence from drinking. If you have been diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, stop drinking immediately.
Over fifty people die every day from alcoholic liver disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Hepatic Encephalopathy & More
Hepatic encephalopathy is the loss of brain function that occurs when the liver is unable to remove toxins from the blood. These toxins reach the brain, and malfunction occurs. Symptoms include extreme confusion, altered levels of consciousness, coma, and even death. Acites is the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity, causing abdominal swelling. Hypoalbuminemia is a medical condition where levels of albumin in the blood are abnormally low. Symptoms include cramps, loss of appetite, fluid around the lungs, swelling all over the body, weakness, and more.
All of the above diseases can be caused by excessive drinking. More often than not, if one of these occurs, then alcoholic hepatitis was already a factor. However, prolonged drinking with alcoholic hepatitis, or with one or more of the above diseases, can lead to much worse.
This occurs when liver cells become so damaged that they literally get replaced by scar tissue. At this point, the liver has been inflamed so often and for so long that it becomes lumpy and hard. Blood and other bodily fluids can no longer easily pass through and be filtered.
Cirrhosis can occur from continuing to drink with either fatty liver disease or alcoholic hepatitis. It can also occur from certain medications, abuse of other drugs, and gallstones, however it is most commonly associated with alcohol abuse. Cirrhosis can NOT be cured, just as with alcoholic hepatitis. The liver damage caused by cirrhosis cannot be reversed. Symptoms are similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis, only worse.
There are many different types of liver cancer. The type associated with alcohol-caused cirrhosis is called hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC. It is the most common type of liver cancer. The scarring from cirrhosis can develop a cancerous tumor inside the liver. Aside from pre-existing liver conditions, alcohol use is the main risk factor for HCC.
Liver cancer is incurable. It can be treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation. Other options include liver transplant or removal of part of the liver. Symptoms are similar to those of cirrhosis, only more intense. Hepatitis types B and C are the most common causes of liver cancer.
Over seventy people die every day from liver cancer. More than twice as many men than women get diagnosed. Nearly 60% of those diagnosed will die within a year. After five years, that jumps to 83%.
If you have begun to experience symptoms of liver disease, it is important to stop drinking immediately. For an alcoholic, this can be difficult and often requires the help of professionals. Turning to an alcohol rehabilitation facility will get you the treatment you need to control your addiction and begin treating the damage it has caused to your liver. Do not wait to seek help. Waiting could damage your liver further, getting it to the point of little to no function.
It is unclear just how much alcohol, and how often it is consumed, will cause liver disease. There are some people who drink large amounts of alcohol frequently and never see a symptom of liver disease, and then there are others who drink one beer a night at dinner for a year and find themselves with full-blown liver disease.
On the plus side, the liver is one of the most resilient and durable organs. Even if it suffers injury, there is a good chance that it can recover and eventually return to its normal level of health.
Still, if you even for one second fear there’s a possibility you may have liver damage from alcohol, you need to stop drinking right away. This is no joke. You cannot live without your liver.