Alcohol and Your Liver
Excessive alcohol consumption can destroy your liver. That isn’t news to most people. What may come as surprise, however, is that in certain cases, liver disease caused by alcohol can be reversed.
There are three types of alcohol-related liver disease. One is Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease or Steatosis, which results from increased fat accumulation in liver cells and may begin the process of liver scarring or fibrosis.
“Most heavy drinkers will have some degree of fatty liver disease,” says John Polio, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut and a hepatologist affiliated with the Yale Liver Transplant Unit. “While you don’t want to get to the point of having any liver damage as a result of alcohol consumption, alcoholic fatty liver disease is potentially reversible by abstaining from alcohol.”
Alcoholic Hepatitis is characterized by fat formation, inflammation and early scarring of the liver. In its milder forms, the damage can be potentially reversed with abstinence. In its most severe forms, however, serious complications can occur, including liver failure and death.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis is the most advanced type of alcohol-related liver disease with extensive scarring and disruption of the normal structure of the liver. This condition cannot be reversed. Many individuals with advanced cirrhosis will experience complications such as fluid retention (ascites), gastrointestinal bleeding from abnormal veins (varices), confusion (hepatic encephalopathy) or development of liver cancer. Some individuals will benefit from a liver transplant but may not be eligible until a period of abstinence has been attained.
People do not necessarily progress sequentially through the three stages of alcohol-related liver disease. Some may advance from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis but others will first present with cirrhosis.
“The concern is that many people will not have symptoms of liver disease until significant liver damage has occurred,” adds Dr. Polio. “Blood tests may show that liver function is normal and it is only when patients experience symptoms that the extent of liver damage becomes known.”
The fact that some forms of alcohol-related liver disease are reversible doesn’t offer a free pass to drink irresponsibly. Your liver is a filter for everything you put in your body. Alcohol is a toxin and overconsumption taxes the liver. Alcohol may worsen other pre-existing liver diseases. Over time, your liver can give out.
Like everything else, moderation is key. For those without liver disease and other health problems, here are some guidelines for safe drinking:
Women and men over the age of 65, who are healthy, may consume one drink per day, which can be a 12-ounce beer, five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Men under the age of 65 may safely consume two drinks per day. However, since an individual’s susceptibility to the toxic effects of alcohol may vary by many factors including age, gender, genetics and coexistent medical conditions, it is reasonable for you to review alcohol use with your physician.
For more information about alcohol-related liver disease visit the American Liver Foundation website or call 1-800-GO-LIVER (1-800-465-4837).
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