People drink alcohol for all sorts of reasons. Some drink to unwind after a long day at work, others do it because they think it’s fun. Regardless of why you drink, too much alcohol is bad news for your health and wellbeing. Excessive intake of alcohol can impair the function of many organs in your body, primarily liver. In this post, we focus on how exactly alcohol affects the liver, complications, and much more.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?
Functions of the liver are numerous ranging from bile production to fat metabolism. The liver also metabolises carbohydrates, stores vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K. Furthermore, liver helps the body metabolise proteins and it filters the blood as well as performing about 500 other functions. Your health and functions of other organs and hormones depend on the liver.
Alcohol intake, particularly for long-term, excessive drinking, can have a negative impact on your liver and thus impairs the ability of this organ (or gland) to do its job. You see, alcohol exhibits toxic effects on the liver. While it is broken down in your liver, alcohol releases various potentially harmful byproducts that damage this organ and affects the enzyme production.
Heavy drinking takes its toll on the liver in more ways than one. Here are the most common conditions that occur due to excessive alcohol consumption:
Fatty liver (steatosis)
This is an accumulation of fat in the liver. Alcoholism and heavy drinking are the most common causes of this disease. Basically, alcohol impairs the liver’s ability to metabolise fat. Then, the excess fat is stored in liver cells where it starts building up.
Symptoms of fatty liver include weight loss, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, physical weakness, confusion, fatigue and jaundice.
Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver caused by heavy alcohol intake. The disease occurs due to the toxic effect of alcohol in the liver. In that case, toxic substances injure liver cells and cause inflammation.
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include changes in appetite, dry mouth, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, jaundice, pain and swelling in the abdomen, fatigue and confusion.
Fibrosis occurs when healthy tissue becomes scarred. It usually develops after a patient experienced injury or inflammation of the liver. As seen above, alcohol can induce such effects.
Signs and symptoms of liver fibrosis include appetite loss, weight loss, fluid buildup in legs and stomach, difficulty thinking clearly and nausea.
Cirrhosis is the late stage of liver fibrosis. Basically, it develops as a liver’s response to damage. Chronic alcohol abuse is the most common cause of liver cirrhosis.
Symptoms of this serious condition include bleeding and bruising easily, fatigue, itchy skin, testicular atrophy and breast enlargement in men, jaundice, abdominal fluid accumulation, nausea, loss of appetite, swelling in legs, weight loss, confusion, slurred speech, redness in palms of your hands.
What is Heavy Drinking?
First, it’s important to define a standard drink in the United States. A standard drink is equal to 0.6oz or 14g of pure alcohol. Basically, one standard drink is equivalent to 12oz of beer, 8oz of malt liquor, 5oz of wine, and 1.5oz of “shot”.
Binge drinking refers to intake of 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men and 4 or more drinks per occasion for women. This usually refers to drinking that much within 2 hours.
Heavy drinking is defined as a consumption of 15 or more drinks a week for men and 8 for women.
What is the Recommended Intake of Alcohol?
If you simply can’t imagine avoiding alcohol entirely, then the best thing to do is to keep it moderate. Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks for men.
Other Organs Affected by Alcohol
Alcohol affects more than just your liver. Constant drinking has a major impact on other organs too. They include:
- Brain – alcohol intake impairs communication pathways in the brain and affects its overall function
- Heart – long-term alcohol consumption can increase the risk of hypertension, stroke, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), cardiomyopathy (heart muscle stretching and drooping)
- Kidneys – effects of alcohol on the liver can extend to kidneys. Alcohol has a diuretic effect and increases the amount of urine, but kidneys can’t keep up and become unable to regulate the flow of body fluids. This can disturb the balance of electrolytes
- Pancreas – alcohol stimulates the pancreas to produce toxic substances that could increase the risk of pancreatitis
Tests to Monitor Alcohol Damage in the Body
If you tend to drink more alcohol than it’s recommended, you may want to consult your doctor regarding laboratory tests to monitor whether your drinking caused damage to your body. These tests include:
- Vitamin B12 test – people who consume too much alcohol tend to be deficient in this vitamin, which is metabolised in the liver
- Complete blood count (CBC) test – to detect liver injury
- Gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) – a liver enzyme that is increased by heavy alcohol consumption, many other conditions that affect the liver use it too
- Alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) – liver enzymes that indicate liver damage
- Magnesium test – low in persons who drink too much alcohol
- Liver panel or comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP) – evaluate liver function
- Ethyl sulfate (EtS) and ethyl glucuronide (EtG) – biomarkers and analytes of the breakdown of alcohol
How to Stop or Reduce Alcohol Consumption
While heavy drinking can be harmful to your liver and entire body, you can protect your health with wise decisions and proactive approach. Regardless of how much you drink, there’s always something you can do to lower consumption. Here are a few tips that will help you:
- Set a realistic goal that you will not consume more than an X amount of drinks a week (it should be a smaller amount than you usually do, of course)
- Eat regularly and focus on a healthy diet rich in fiber; the feeling of fullness may curb cravings for alcohol
- Identify triggers associated with your heavy drinking sessions and avoid them
- Avoid going to places where you drink a lot
- Don’t keep alcohol at home
- Consider therapy to uncover underlying reasons why you drink
- Manage stress and other problems in a healthy manner
- Admit you have the problem and acknowledge you have the power to solve it
- Understand why lowering (or avoiding) alcohol intake is important
The severity of alcohol consumption isn’t taken seriously, although numbers show it’s a major problem. According to the 2015 survey from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism about 86.4% of Americans older than 18 reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives. In addition, 56% reported that they drank alcohol in the past month.
The same report revealed that 26.9% of people older than 18 reported they engaged in binge drinking sessions in the past month and 7% of Americans reported engaging in heavy drinking sessions.
Numbers also show that 15.1 million adults ages 18 or older or 6.2% of adult population in the United States had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2015. Of these, 9.8 million accounts for men and 5.3 million persons with AUD are women.
A study from the September 2017 issue of the JAMA Psychiatry monitored drinking patterns of 40,000 people in 2002-2003 and 2012-2013 and found that AUDs increased by 50%. About 30 million Americans were actively struggling with alcohol abuse. In other words, one in eight Americans struggle with alcohol abuse.
Although most people tend to consider alcohol as a gateway to fun, de-stressing after work, and relaxation, it can cause serious harm to their liver and other organs. Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for many diseases and cancers, and it is important to consult your doctor regarding tests that monitor liver function and degree of alcohol damage.
If you’re interested in learning about the effects of fatty liver on your health, read on more about it in our other lifestyle post here!