An alcoholic liver is a liver that has been damaged by alcohol consumption. The liver is the primary organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol.
The process of breaking down alcohol produces toxic chemicals that interfere with normal liver functioning. When an individual drinks excessively over a prolonged period of time, these toxic chemicals accumulate and damage liver tissue.
The degree of liver damage is directly proportional to the extent of alcohol consumption. For example, the liver is prone to harm in an individual who drinks excessively over a long period of time. Damage will occur as long as the individual continues to drink. Complete cessation is the only cure for the majority of alcoholic liver diseases.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF ALCOHOLIC LIVER DISEASE?
Alcoholic liver disease covers a spectrum of liver diseases that range from fatty liver to cirrhosis. Generally, there are three types of liver disease.
Your liver naturally contains some fat content, but a fat accumulation that is over 10% of the liver’s total weight is considered a fatty liver. The liver is responsible for the breakdown of carbohydrates and lipids. Excessive alcohol consumption impairs this process and causes the liver to make fatty acids instead. Eventually, fat begins to accumulate in the liver cells.
Fatty liver is one of the earliest stages of alcohol-related liver disease, and therefore the most benign. Although it can occur after just one incidence of drinking, the condition can be reversed once an individual stops drinking.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. Chronic consumption of alcohol can overwhelm the liver’s ability to effectively remove the toxic byproducts of alcohol metabolism, leading to irritation, swelling, and inflammation.
Alcoholic hepatitis ranges from mild to severe. Mild cases can be reversed by drinking cessation, but severe cases can progress to scarring and cirrhosis.
Alcoholic cirrhosis is when healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Scar tissue development, or fibrosis, occurs in response to chronic liver injury. Cirrhosis is an irreversible condition, and it is the most advanced form of liver disease. Treatment may delay the progression of the disease, but it will not reverse it. In severe cases, a liver transplantation may be needed.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE AN ALCOHOLIC LIVER?
The early signs and symptoms of liver failure are vague at most, and many times symptoms do not develop until late in the disease. Because of this, many individuals often wait until severe liver decompensation forms before seeking medical attention. If you or a loved one has a history of chronic drinking, be alert for the manifestations of liver disease so you can obtain help before the disease progresses.
Besides an enlargement of the liver, individuals with fatty liver are usually asymptomatic. Sometimes individuals will experience with nonspecific symptoms (such as fatigue) that do not seem to indicate a liver disease.
Early symptoms of hepatitis involve the digestive system and include
- loss of appetite
- stomach pain
Later symptoms include
- jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin
- abdominal bloating
- bloody vomit
Liver failure is usually detected before the disease progresses to cirrhosis. Since cirrhosis is associated with multiple medical complications, symptoms involve multiple body organs. Signs of cirrhosis include
- general weakness
- weight loss
- abdominal swelling
- spider nevi (spidery red marks on upper body arms and face)
- bruises and bleeding disorders
- edema (fluid retention and swelling in the ankles, legs, and abdomen)
- confusion, disorientation
HOW MUCH ALCOHOL CAN I DRINK WITHOUT CAUSING LIVER DAMAGE?
Changes in the liver occur just hours after drinking. Fatty liver is a universal finding among alcoholics. Even people who consume a moderate amount of alcohol will exhibit fatty changes.
Dr. James W. West, author of the Betty Ford Center Book of Answers states an individual is at a high risk for hepatitis when he or she consumes eight standard drinks (such as eight 12 oz cans of beer, 8 shots of hard liquor, or 750 ml of Sherry) daily over a period of eight to 12 months
According to the Cleveland Medical Clinic, a daily intake of more than 60 grams of pure alcohol in men and 20 grams in women can increase the chances of cirrhosis.
Sixty grams of pure alcohol is approximately
- 5 cans of 12-oz beer
- a 750ml bottle of wine
- 5 shots of 80-proof liquor
Twenty grams of pure alcohol
- 1 and a half cans of 12-oz beer
- 2 glasses of table wine
- 1 and a half shot of 80 proof liquor
Regardless, multiple factors play a role in the development of liver disease. Although there is no cut-and-dry formula for determining your risk of developing an alcoholic liver, drinking cessation is the most effective way to prevent alcoholic liver disease.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO RECOVER FROM LIVER PROBLEMS?
Perhaps you are already struggling with a liver disease as a result of alcohol. Is it possible to recover? Is it possible to live your life despite this exhaustive process? Depending on where you are in the disease progression, you may be able to suspend the disease progression by healthy living, but other times a liver transplant may be your only choice.
Yet even a liver transplant does not have to wipe out the hope of living a full and joyous life. Amy, one of Duffy’s counsellors, tells the story of how a guest regained her strength and hope after facing a liver transplant. Like this person, Duffy’s can also help you regain a sense of purpose and joy no matter where you are in life.