Alcohol and Liver Disease
Alcohol can have wide-ranging effects on many important organs in your body, but the liver can be particularly vulnerable.1 A vital organ responsible for filtering toxins, the liver plays a key role in metabolizing alcohol, and as a result can suffer from several alcohol-induced liver diseases. Many of these liver diseases can cause devastating long-term health effects, potentially culminating in liver failure and death.2 Understanding the impact of alcohol and liver damage can help people make healthy life choices.
What Does the Liver Do?
The liver breaks down chemicals that enter the body through eating, drinking, and taking medications.3 It’s a large organ that’s surrounded by the lower ribs.3 A few functions of the liver include:3
- Removing waste from the blood.
- Storing nutrients.
- Filtering chemicals in food, alcohol, and medications.
- Producing bile.
When filtering and processing alcohol, especially in large quantities, the liver can become inflamed and develop problems, such as fibrosis, cirrhosis, hepatitis, and fatty liver.4
Short- and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
Heavy alcohol use sustained over a long period of time can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes for the liver.6 These effects can occur in both the short-term and long -term. Age, gender, ethnicity, and genetics are all factors that affect one’s risk factors for liver disease and how quickly and severely liver damage caused by alcohol consumption can manifest.6
Short-term effects of the liver that can result from alcohol consumption can range from inflammation to increased buildup of fat in the liver.
While there can be several long-term effects of alcohol misuse and addiction on the liver, three of the more common and serious conditions include:5
- Fatty liver disease.
- Alcoholic hepatitis.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis.
While these conditions are generally considered to share a relationship with one another, with a lack of treatment and continued long-term alcohol consumption increasing the risk that fatty liver disease progresses to alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic hepatitis progressing to alcoholic cirrhosis, this is not always the case. 5 All of these conditions can appear without developing the others first, and all can cause serious long-term health effects and potentially death if left untreated. 5
Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease, also known as steatosis, occurs when a liver’s fat content exceeds 5-10% of the organ.8 One of the conditions that can arise earliest from chronic heavy alcohol consumption, fatty liver disease is common in those who struggle with alcohol misuse and addiction.6 Rates of fatty liver disease were notably high in those who regularly consumed 4 to 5 drinks a day and those who regularly engaged in binge drinking.6 spectrum of ALD Fatty liver disease is characterized by a sustained increase in fat cells in the liver, usually as a result of chronic alcohol misuse causing liver metabolic changes or disfunction.7 If fatty liver disease is detected early, it is possible to reverse the damage, especially if one stops consuming alcohol.7 However, if alcohol consumption continues and fatty liver disease is left untreated, the condition can worsen and even progress to more serious conditions like alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis.7
Alcoholic hepatitis is a severe inflammatory condition of the liver, usually appearing from untreated fatty liver disease.6 While symptoms can vary, those diagnosed with alcohol hepatitis may experience symptoms including jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), malaise (feelings of general discomfort), and tender hepatomegaly (enlarged liver).7 It’s worth noting that the symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis can appear quite suddenly, and may necessitate medical care.7
Despite being a more severe condition than fatty liver disease, those experiencing mild alcoholic hepatitis have been noted to achieve recovery with the cessation of alcohol use and medical treatment.7 However, those with more severe cases of alcoholic hepatitis experience significant mortality rates.7 Additionally, untreated alcohol hepatitis can progress to alcoholic liver cirrhosis.
Alcoholic liver cirrhosis is a serious medical condition characterized by extensive scarring (medically known as fibrosis) throughout the liver.5, 10 As the more and more of healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, the organ has more trouble performing its normal functions.10 As a result, the liver may become unable to filter out toxins, leading to widespread organ failure (notably in the liver and kidneys) and death.5
Liver cirrhosis can be a severe and damaging condition; the mortality rate can be quite high and there are no dedicated cures or medications.5, 11 If alcoholic liver cirrhosis advances to the point of liver failure, treatment becomes restricted, with many doctors resorting to a liver transplant.11 If cirrhosis is detected earlier, treatments can vary, though many will aim to treat the underlying causes of the cirrhosis, including alcohol misuse and addiction.11
Can Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease Be Treated?
A person’s liver endures quite a bit of damage with heavy alcohol use.6 Ongoing consumption of alcohol can lead to the liver diseases mentioned in this article; however, even the early effects of heavy drinking can lead to liver inflammation.6 About 35% of people who are considered problem drinkers develop alcohol-related liver diseases.6
Currently, no FDA-approved medications are used to treat people with alcohol-induced liver disease.6, 11 However, there are methods that are being used to help manage symptoms of liver disease from alcohol. These methods include:6
- Abstinence from alcohol.
- Natural and artificial steroids.
- Nutritional supplements or herbal remedies.
- Liver transplant, especially if liver failure is present.
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
If you or a loved one is struggling to quit drinking, help is available for you. Evidence-based treatment can lead to positive health outcomes.9 One may consider reaching out to their doctor in order to determine their medical needs. Additionally, one may also search the SAMHSA treatment locator to find local treatment centers.
Addiction helplines, like the one operated by American Addiction Centers (AAC), can also be powerful resources for finding alcohol addiction rehab. Our compassionate staff is available 24/7 to help answer your questions about alcohol addiction and its effects on the liver, help you find suitable rehab centers, and help you verify your insurance coverage. Don’t delay, call us today at to get started.
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