The liver is an important part of the body, filtering blood, detoxifying chemicals and metabolizing drugs. It also creates bile that the intestines use in digestion. In total, the liver has over 500 functions in the body, including breaking down about one alcoholic drink per hour.
As one of the most important organs in the body, the liver is usually low maintenance, operating quietly and efficiently. The only time the liver becomes noticeable is if something of serious concern happens, like a serious condition or illness.
About one in ten Americans have liver disease, including alcohol related liver diseases (ARLD) such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and alcohol related cirrhosis.
What Does Alcohol Do To The Liver?
When a person drinks alcohol, the liver is responsible for filtering the alcohol out of the bloodstream. Moderate amounts of alcohol usually will not affect a normally functioning liver, or lead to alcohol related liver disease (ARLD).
Moderate drinking is considered one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One alcoholic beverage is considered 12 oz beer, 4 oz wine, or 1 oz liquor. Drinking more than this can damage the liver.
Too much alcohol, either at once or over time, can have a significant toll on the entire body, but especially the liver. The liver cannot easily filter out large amounts of alcohol, which means that it needs to overwork in order to process the alcohol in the body.
Overworking the liver results in an accumulation of fatty tissue, inflammation, and eventually significant scarring on the liver. Scars on the liver will continue to accumulate as heavy or binge drinking continue.
Eventually, the scar tissue overwhelms the liver and it can no longer function properly. Once this happens, the body loses its filtration system. Without a liver transplant, this disease eventually turns fatal.
Noticeable Signs of Liver Damage From Alcohol
The biggest concern regarding alcohol induced liver disease is that there are no symptoms until significant damage has been done to the liver. However, the following are some of the symptoms of liver damage from alcohol:
- general unwellness
- nausea and vomiting
- decreased appetite
- abdominal pain
Because these symptoms are very vague and could indicate any number of illnesses or gastrointestinal issues, many people disregard these warning signs. Continuing to consume alcohol can speed up the damage to the liver.
Alcohol Induced Liver Disease
There are four stages of alcohol induced liver disease. As alcohol continues to damage the liver, it will progress through fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and finally, alcoholic cirrhosis. The symptoms of these three diseases may overlap.
Some additional signs of liver damage from alcohol are:
- low energy levels
- abnormal sleeping habits
- emerging skin conditions
- drinking small amounts of alcohol results in intoxication
- intense hangovers
- caffeine affects increase
- severe reactions from regular medications
Fatty Liver Disease
Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time can cause fatty liver disease. People with fatty liver disease may feel extremely tired or weak, or feel pain or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen.
If a person stops drinking at this point, the symptoms of fatty liver disease may subside. Liver disease at this stage is not permanent, if the person stops drinking.
Continuing to drink can result in alcoholic hepatitis. The liver becomes inflamed and scar tissue begins to form. This impacts the blood flow in the liver, preventing it from working properly. Any form of alcoholic hepatitis requires the person to stop drinking completely. The more severe the case of hepatitis, the more life-threatening it can become.
As alcoholic hepatitis progresses, a person may experience:
- low fever
- jaundice (yellowing of skin or whites of eyes)
- extreme tiredness
- weight loss
- blood in vomit or stool
- Clubbing (excessive curving) of fingernails
- swelling of lower limbs
- tenderness in the abdomen
Severe cases of alcoholic hepatitis can result in fluid accumulating in the abdomen, organ failure and changes in behavior and cognition.
During this stage, proteins build up in the liver. Due to the existing damage, instead of breaking down proteins, the liver ends up accumulating too many proteins and fibroids develop.
Severe scarring of the liver results in alcoholic cirrhosis. Most people with alcoholic cirrhosis are alcohol dependent and will likely need to detox from alcohol. This condition is permanent, though symptoms can be relieved if a person stops drinking alcohol.
Because the body can no longer filter toxins properly, a person with cirrhosis may experience strange bruising, gum and nasal bleeding and dark urine.
Continuing to drink after diagnosed with alcoholic cirrhosis is likely to be fatal, it can cause liver cancer and failure. A person cannot live without a functioning liver.
How To Diagnose Alcohol Induced Liver Disease
Only a medical professional can diagnose alcohol induced liver disease. It requires a blood test to measure specific levels of enzymes, serums, amino acids and proteins.
Diagnosing liver disease can be difficult, because some people do not show symptoms. That is why alcohol induced liver disease should be suspected in anyone who consumes a significant amount of alcohol on a regular basis.
Treating Alcohol Induced Liver Disease
If a person is diagnosed with alcohol induced liver disease, they first thing they should do is stop drinking alcohol completely. An alcohol dependent person should seek medically supervised detoxification to stop drinking and strongly consider alcohol addiction treatment.
Getting healthy can help treat alcohol induced liver disease. Exercising, losing weight and not smoking have all shown to help reverse early stages of alcoholic liver disease. Adding supplements, like a multivitamin may help as well.
There are medications that are often prescribed to ease some of the discomfort associated with the symptoms of alcoholic liver disease. Reducing inflammation with steroids, prescribing probiotics and antibiotics, and in some cases stem cell therapies are used.
When alcoholic liver disease completely compromises the liver, a transplant is necessary. In cases of alcohol induced liver failure, a liver transplant can be complicated.
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Substance Abuse Treatment And Alcoholic Liver Disease
When a person has a significant medical condition, it is important to consider substance abuse treatment options that include medical supervision. Addiction treatment that offers medically supervised detoxification may be best suited for someone with an additional medical need.
Many medical professionals at detox units have experience with co-occurring diagnoses, especially those associated with alcohol. They can work with other medical professionals to make sure the client is comfortable and receiving the best care possible.
Contact one of our specialists today and allow us to help find a facility that can help you or your loved one. Trying to navigate the addiction treatment options while also treating a medical condition like liver disease can be overwhelming. We are available to help as soon as you are ready.