Alcohol Effects on the Liver

The liver is very sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol. There is no exact relationship between drinking and alcohol-related liver disease, but medical experts indicate the recommended doses for different types of alcohol to avoid liver problems. Also, the effects of alcohol on the body depend on various factors, such as gender, age and other diseases, as well as other factors.

Most alcohol is processed by the liver after absorption in the digestive tract. Alcohol processing produces substances that can cause liver damage. Consuming more alcohol increases the risk of more severe liver damage. The liver can also function normally, even if about 80% of it is damaged. However, if a person continues to consume alcohol, the liver damage progresses and can eventually be fatal. If people stop drinking alcohol, some of the damage can be prevented, as the liver is able to recover over time in cases of minor damage. Thus, it is possible to live a longer life.

A better understanding of the risk of liver disease due to alcohol consumption is possible by being aware of how much alcohol is consumed. To determine this, you need to know the content of alcoholic beverages. Different types of alcoholic beverages have different percentages of alcohol.

However, in typical portions of these different drinks, the amount of alcohol is similar, although the amount of liquid is very different.

  • 340 g can of beer: about 4 g to 22 g
  • 140 g glass of wine: about 19 g to 28 g
  • 42 g of potable (or typical mixed drink) strong alcohol: about 14 g

Men are at increased risk if they drink more than about 42 g of alcohol a day for more than 10 years (especially if they drink more than about 85 g). Consuming 42 grams a day, you need to drink about 3 cans of beer, 3 glasses of wine or 3 shots of a strong alcoholic beverage. To develop cirrhosis of the liver, men usually need to drink more than about 85 grams of alcohol a day for more than 10 years. To consume 85 grams a day, you need to drink 6 cans of beer, 5 glasses of wine or 6 shots of strong alcohol. About half of men who drink more than 230 grams of alcohol a day in 20 years develop cirrhosis of the liver.

Women are more prone to alcohol-induced liver damage. Women are prone to liver damage if they drink about half of the alcohol consumed by men, i.e., drinking more than 21 g to 42 g of alcohol per day. Women may be at increased risk of liver damage because their digestive system may process less alcohol, increasing the amount of alcohol that enters the liver.

In general, there is a higher risk of alcohol-related liver disease if a person consumes more alcohol for longer period of time. However, liver disease does not develop in anyone who consumes large amounts of alcohol on a long-term basis. Other factors are often involved in such situations.

  • Gender
    For women, liver damage due to alcohol is much more frequent (almost 50%) than for men.

  • Body Mass Index
    Being overweight or a tendency to obesity increases the risk of disease.

  • Drinking Habits
    If alcohol is only consumed during a meal, the risk of getting a liver disease is lower.

  • Other Illnesses
    For example, diabetes complicates the course and prognosis of liver disease.

What alcohol-induced liver diseases exist and how do they progress?

There are three alcohol liver diseases: alcohol toxic hepatitis is an acute illness while fatty liver disease (obesity) and liver cirrhosis are chronic. The form of the disease is determined by its progression – whether the disease has developed over a few days, months or years.

  • Alcohol-induced liver obesity – fatty hepatosis
    Liver obesity develops when the body produces too much fat or does not metabolize it efficiently enough. Excess fat is stored in the liver cells, where it accumulates and causes fatty hepatosis. The accumulation of this fat can be caused by various causes. For example, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the accumulation of fatty acids in the liver. This is the first stage of alcohol-related liver disease. Sometimes it can be caused by heavy alcohol consumption in a short period of time, even less than a week. There are usually no symptoms and this stage of the disease is often reversible if the individual abstains from alcohol.

  • Acute Toxic Hepatitis
    This disease occurs after prolonged (months, sometimes several months) alcohol use or acutely it may also appear during periods of binge drinking Symptoms of the disease are feeling unwell, decreased appetite or loss of appetite, high temperature, jaundice, confusion. Alcohol hepatitis is curable. If a person stops drinking and starts treatment, this condition is reversible. However, the disease may progress to liver cirrhosis.

  • Liver Cirrhosis
    Most patients with liver cirrhosis do not pay attention to the early symptoms of the disease. They tend to be minor, including weight loss, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. For those who drink a lot, early identification could help before the disease has reached a later stage. The main cirrhosis-related problem is that the connective tissue in the liver proliferates, and the normal liver cells die – meaning that the liver gradually loses its ability to perform its functions.

    When liver damage progresses to a late stage, fluid builds up in the legs, called edema, and in the abdomen, called ascites. Ascites can cause bacterial peritonitis or a serious infection. When the liver slows down or stops the production of proteins needed for blood to clot, a person easily gets bruises or bleeds. As the liver becomes uneven and stiff in cirrhosis, blood cannot flow easily through them, so the pressure in the portal vein, which is the main vein through which the blood flows to the liver, increases. When the pressure in a portal vein is high, their condition is called portal hypertension. To reduce this pressure, blood passes through other veins. When a person has cirrhosis, the high pressure in the portal vein is duplicated in another organ or spleen, which becomes enlarged and destroys the excessive number of platelets – blood particles that help the blood to clot. When portal hypertension occurs, it can cause dilated blood vessels in the esophagus or stomach, or both. Dilated blood vessels can burst due to thin walls and increased pressure. If they explode, severe bleeding may occur in the esophagus or upper stomach, which requires immediate medical attention. In case of liver failure, they cannot remove toxins from the blood and they accumulate in the brain. The accumulation of toxins in the brain called liver encephalopathy can reduce mental function and cause coma. Signs of reduced mental function include confusion, personality changes, memory loss, difficulty concentrating and changes in sleep habits.

If you want to make sure that your drinking habits have left no impact on your liver, it is best to visit your family doctor!