The liver is one of the most crucial organs in the body, one we rely on to keep us alive. While we can survive with a partial liver, we can’t live without one at all. The liver is responsible for metabolising (breaking down) toxins from medications and alcohol. However, when the liver becomes overburdened, the results can be significantly detrimental to your health.
What is the liver and what does it do?
The liver is one of the body’s most vital organs. Its job is to break down and filter out any harmful substances in the blood. It also helps the body fight off infection by producing hormones, enzymes, and proteins. In addition to warding off illness, the liver converts vitamins, nutrients, and medicines into substances that our bodies can use. It is also responsible for cleaning our blood, producing bile for digestion and storing glycogen for energy.
It takes the body around one hour to process one alcoholic drink and this timeframe increases with each alcoholic beverage consumed. When a person’s blood-alcohol level is high, the liver has to work extra harder to metabolise it, and the process takes much longer. The liver can only break down a certain amount of alcohol at a time, so if someone is engaged in dangerous drinking habits a lot of the alcohol in their system will remain unprocessed and is left to circulate through the bloodstream.
This build-up of alcohol in the blood begins to affect the brain and heart, leading to intoxication. Alcohol abuse and addiction cause permanent damage of liver cells which leads to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), alcoholic hepatitis and cellular mutations which can ultimately cause liver cancer.
Mixing alcohol with other medications can also be very dangerous for your liver. Never take alcohol and medication simultaneously without speaking with your physician first. When combined, certain medications, such as acetaminophen, like Tylenol, can lead to severe damage to your liver. Other medications that are dangerous to combine with alcohol include antibiotics, blood thinners, antidepressants, sedatives, pain medications, and muscle relaxants.
How does alcohol impact the liver?
Liver disease is the term used to describe damage to the liver. There are two types of liver disease: acute and chronic. Acute liver disease describes liver problems that develop over time, usually a few months, while chronic damage can advance over several years.
Oxidative stress occurs when the liver attempts to break down large amounts of alcohol, and the chemical reaction that takes place can leave cells damaged which leads to inflammation and scarring.
Toxins in gut bacteria can make their way into the liver as a result of intestinal damage caused by excessive alcohol use. These toxins can also lead to inflammation and scarring.
Glycogenolysis describes the process of the liver turning glucose into fat which it sends round the body to store for use when we need it. Alcohol affects the way the liver handles fat, so your liver cells get stuffed full of it. If this happens, it may cause you to feel discomfort in your abdomen because of a swollen liver. This can also result in loss of appetite and sickness. A blood test may be able to show if you have fatty liver.
The only way to help reduce the potential damage and halt the progression of liver disease is to stop drinking.
Symptoms of liver disease.
Up to 20 percent of heavy drinkers go on to develop fatty liver disease as a result of their habit. However, while fatty liver disease can usually be reversed with abstinence, other illnesses like alcoholic hepatitis which causes liver degeneration can further develop into cirrhosis and may even be fatal. However, this too is reversible with abstinence.
People who abuse alcohol regularly are at greater risk of developing liver disease following an infection or genetic predisposition. Someone consuming more than two drinks daily is considered to be putting themselves at such risk.
Common symptoms of liver disease include:
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
- Abdominal discomfort and swelling
- Swollen legs and ankles
- Dark urine and blood coloured stool
- Nausea or vomiting
- Itchy skin
- Discoloured stool
- Bruising easily
- Suppressed appetite
Different types of liver disease
There are many types of liver disease, all of which can cause serious damage to the liver. However, these diseases are easily prevented when alcohol consumption is controlled, and the potential dangers are fully understood.
The four types listed below are some of the most common alcohol-related liver diseases.
- Alcohol-related fatty liver disease describes liver damage as a result of alcohol abuse.
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is characterised by the build-up of fat in liver cells.
- Viral (Hepatitis) is the swelling of the liver caused by a viral infection.
- Autoimmune (chronic hepatitis) is a severe form of hepatitis where blood cells attack and destroy liver cells.
Tips for reversing liver problems caused by alcohol
Although the human body has amazing capabilities when it comes to healing itself, there is also a limit to what it can achieve based on the circumstances. The liver is the body’s only regenerative organ, and minor damage such as fatty liver disease can usually be reversed. Any chances of reversing damage to the liver caused by alcohol will have to be done very early on. Early intervention increases the chances of restoring the liver to its regular functioning state. However, once cirrhosis of the liver has occurred it cannot be reversed as scarring of the liver is permanent and the liver will not function as it did previously. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help reduce the risk of further damage.
The liver is vital in the breakdown of alcohol and other toxins within the body. However, binge drinking and other alcohol misuses can have devastating and irreversible effects on the organ, leading to potential failure or significant damage. Moderate drinking in addition to a healthy lifestyle is vital in maintaining a fully functioning liver.
If you’re concerned about your alcohol use, or someone you know needs help, Which Rehab can help you take the next steps towards finding a rehab that suits your needs. Contact us on 0800 170 7000 to begin your journey to recovery.