Alcohol abuse damages every part of your body, but it’s important to understand exactly what its physiological effects are. Last week, we told you all about alcohol’s effect on the brain. Up this week? The liver.
It’s no secret that the liver takes the brunt of alcohol’s effects. Its primary function is to filter blood coming from the digestive tract, which means it processes up to 90 percent of the alcohol you consume. Crucially, the liver also processes certain medications and manufactures the proteins and enzymes which our bodies use to fight off infections. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, long-term heavy alcohol use is the single most prevalent cause of illness or death from the liver in the United States.
The good news is that the liver has almost unparalleled regenerative abilities. If you’re struggling with alcohol addiction or Alcohol Use Disorder, know that every day you don’t drink is a day that your liver can repair itself.
The Damage to Your Liver
There are three common conditions associated with alcohol abuse and the liver: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
This disease is a buildup of fat deposits in your liver’s cells. This condition can occur naturally over time (especially if you’re overweight). But heavy alcohol consumption can speed up the process. And while fat cells in your liver don’t directly cause any adverse health effects, they’re a warning sign that your liver is having to work harder than it should. If left unchecked, those fat cells can eventually lead to hepatitis.
This second disease is an inflammation of the liver. Not all heavy drinkers will develop this condition, but different livers react differently – even moderate drinkers can develop hepatitis. Women are more likely to develop this condition than men, since women’s bodies process alcohol more slowly (women have a naturally higher body-to-fat ratio than men, which slows the rate at which alcohol passes through their systems). If you develop hepatitis you must stop drinking – continuing to drink with liver inflammation can lead to liver failure or death. The most common signs of hepatitis include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or of the whites of the eyes)
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low-grade fever
- Fatigue and weakness
If your liver is distressed and you continue to drink, hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis – the most serious sign that your liver is in imminent danger. Cirrhosis is a buildup of scar tissue on the liver. It causes the organ to become stiff and hardly able to function. Signs of liver cirrhosis include:
- Losing muscle tone
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Easy bruising
- Fluid retention (swelling in your legs and abdomen)
- Bleeding in mouth or vomiting blood
- Confusion or mental delirium
There is no one treatment for liver cirrhosis. If you are diagnosed with this condition, you must stop drinking immediately and make lifestyle adjustments—otherwise, cirrhosis will lead to liver failure and eventually death.
As we already mentioned, there’s good news: the liver is incredibly resilient. If you stop drinking, your liver can regenerate itself (a unique trait that most organs don’t share) within a matter of weeks or even days. However, badly damaged or scarred livers cannot regenerate – that’s why it’s important to start your recovery journey right away.
“How quickly the liver can repair itself” – Piedmont Healthcare
“Alcohol and Liver Damage” – Addiction Center