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The Effects of Alcohol on the Liver

Wednesday 22 July 2020
Alcoholism

Table of Contents


I. Overview

a. What does the Liver Do?

II. Alcohol and the Liver

a. Types of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

b. Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

III. Treatments for Alcoholism

a. Detox

b. Therapy

c. Medication

d. Transplant


Overview

Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a condition where people feel that they are unable to function without alcohol. Alcohol use disorder is a common condition that affects more than 14 million Americans. [1]

Similar to many other drugs, alcohol causes more damage when taken in high quantities. Consuming five or more alcoholic beverages on five or more occasions within 30 days is considered heavy drinking. [1]

Many people like to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer to unwind on an evening or weekend. However, alcohol is a drug, and consuming high quantities of alcohol can lead to health problems. These problems can include mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Often, when people think of the effects of alcohol on the body, they think of liver problems. Keep reading to learn about how alcohol affects the liver and how alcohol use disorders can be treated with medications like Antabuse (disulfiram).

glasses of wine being clinked together

a. What does the Liver Do?

Liver disease is potentially one of the most severe health conditions that can result from alcohol abuse.  The liver is the biggest solid organ and the largest gland in the body.  It is an incredibly versatile organ and completes over 500 functions in the body. [2] This includes detoxifying chemicals, filtering blood from the digestive tract, and producing important proteins. [3]

Alcohol and the Liver

The liver is a very resilient organ and can regenerate by developing new cells. However, alcohol abuse over an extended period of time can cause serious and permanent damage, reducing the liver’s ability to regenerate.

a. Types of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

There are three stages of alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). The earlier that ARLD is diagnosed, the more likely that it can be reversed.  Abstaining from alcohol is the first step of treatment. Many people may not show symptoms of ARLD until the disease is advanced. [4] The three stages are:

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: Alcohol causes fat to gather around the liver. This can occur after only a few days of binge drinking. Stopping alcohol for two weeks can cure the disease at this stage.

Acute alcoholic hepatitis: Alcohol causes inflammation of the liver. This stage may be treatable depending on the severity of damage to the liver.

Alcoholic cirrhosis: This stage is the most severe form of alcohol-related liver disease. The liver is permanently scarred and this may lead to liver failure.

b. Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

People that have alcohol-related liver disease may suffer from several of these symptoms. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and some people may occur more frequently after heavy drinking. Early symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Feeling sick or unwell
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue [5]

a shirtless man holding his stomach

More obvious and severe symptoms can develop as the liver becomes more seriously damaged. Signs of serious liver damage include:

  • Increased sensitivity to alcohol or drugs
  • Swelling in the abdomen, legs, ankles, and feet
  • Jaundice
  • Confusion, memory problems, or personality changes
  • High temperature or shivering
  • Itchy skin, blotchy palms, or hair loss
  • Unusually curved fingertips or nails
  • Large weight loss or muscle wasting
  • Easier bruising or bleeding
  • Bleeding gums or nosebleeds
  • Black or tarry stools or vomiting blood [5]

Treatment for Alcoholism

a. Detox

The most important treatment for alcoholism and alcohol-related liver disease is to stop drinking. For patients that have alcohol fatty liver disease, two weeks without alcohol can help your liver to recover to normal functionality. However, following two weeks of abstinence, it is suggested that you do not drink more than one drink a day for women, or drinks daily for men.  [6]

For patients with more serious liver disease, your doctor may suggest not drinking alcohol for the rest of your life. This allows your liver the best chance of recovery and also limits the risk of further damage.

Some people, especially those with more severe alcohol use disorders, may struggle to avoid consuming alcohol for a period of time. It may be beneficial to detox in a specialized center or hospital so that withdrawal symptoms such as seizures and hallucinations can be properly treated. [7] It can take up to a week for your body to completely remove alcohol from the system.

b. Therapy

Once alcohol is out of the system, counseling and therapy can help modify behavior to help either quit or reduce alcohol consumption. It is important to find counseling sessions that are most effective for you, whether this is short or long-term, one-to-one, or group therapy. Your doctor may be able to help you find local specialists or groups for you.

a woman sitting on a chair

c. Medication

Medication can also help people stop drinking alcohol. Antabuse (disulfiram) is a commonly prescribed medication and works by preventing the body from processing alcohol normally. This results in several very unpleasant side effects that occur if any alcohol is consumed.

Campral (acamprosate) is another common medication to treat alcohol use disorders. Campral affects chemicals in the brain to help reduce alcohol cravings.

d. Transplant

For patients with severe liver damage where the liver has stopped functioning, a liver transplant may be required. Patients who require a liver transplant cannot drink alcohol while awaiting the transplant for the remainder of their lives. [5]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.