Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, even for just a few days, can cause damage to your liver. The liver is a resilient organ in your body that is essential for filtering toxins out of your system. It can only handle so much, however, and if you drink more than the liver is capable of handling at once, damage can be done to the cells.
What Does Alcohol Do to the Liver?
As alcohol enters the liver, it produces a toxic enzyme called acetaldehyde. Normally, the liver is able to filter it out of your system without too much damage being done. When too much acetaldehyde is in the liver to be processed efficiently, however, permanent scarring on the liver can occur as well as damage to your stomach lining and brain.
An additional effect that alcohol has on the body is that it is a diuretic and leads to dehydration when you drink too much alcohol. The liver needs water to filter toxins effectively, so when alcohol causes dehydration, your liver is forced to find water elsewhere. This effect contributes to the experience of a hangover or severe headache the morning after a night of excessive drinking.
Stages of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
Each time alcohol is filtered by the liver, cells in the liver die. These cells regenerate, but they can only regenerate so quickly and so often.
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) is what happens when excessive alcohol intake causes damage to the liver. There are three main stages of ARLD, and symptoms may not even be noticed until severe liver damage has occurred.
The three stages of ARLD are:
Stage 1: Alcoholic fatty liver disease. Buildups of fats accumulate on the liver after drinking large amounts of alcohol, even for just a few days. Few, if any, symptoms are experienced at this stage, but it is an indication that you are consuming too much alcohol.
Stage 2: Alcoholic hepatitis. Damage to the liver occurs following a long period of excessive drinking. Unrelated to infectious hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis is often the first time that someone with liver damage experiences any symptoms.
Stage 3: Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis of the liver happens when liver cells that are damaged by chronic inflammation are replaced with scar tissue. The scar tissue inhibits the flow of blood and fluids throughout the liver, which makes it difficult for the liver to function properly. As a result, it becomes hard and lumpy.
How Much Alcohol Leads to Liver Damage?
Like any drug or medication, everyone responds to alcohol differently. What one person can safely consume may cause significant damage to someone else.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has established some guidelines, however, that define what a standard drink is and what moderate and heavy alcohol consumption look like for most people. The definitions are as follows:
- A standard drink is equal to one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits, such as vodka, tequila, rum, gin, or whiskey.
- Moderate alcohol consumption is up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Binge drinking is four drinks or more for women or five drinks or more for men within about a two-hour timeframe.
- Heavy alcohol consumption is binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.
Some people may be able to sustain heavy alcohol consumption for a few years before experiencing significant damage to the liver, while others can begin to develop liver damage with just moderate alcohol consumption. Limiting your alcohol intake and being aware of how many drinks you consume at any given time will reduce your chances of developing liver damage.
Can You Reverse or Repair Liver Damage?
The potential to reverse or repair liver damage depends on the severity of the damage and which stage of ARLD you are in. Alcoholic fatty liver disease can be reversed, for example, if you stop drinking for two weeks or more. During this time period, you liver is able to return to normal.
Depending on the severity of alcoholic hepatitis, you may be able to reverse the damage that has been done to the liver. In mild cases, damage to the liver is likely to heal if you quit drinking alcohol for good. Severe alcoholic hepatitis that goes untreated, however, can become a life-threatening condition that many people die from each year.
Cirrhosis of the liver is the most serious form of liver damage and not generally reversible. If you stop drinking immediately, you can increase your life expectancy by preventing any further damage. Someone with alcohol-related cirrhosis who continues to drink alcohol has less than a 5 percent chance of living beyond five years, reports the National Health Service of the UK.
Ways to Mitigate Liver Damage
If you are concerned about potential harm being caused to your liver by drinking, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of causing severe damage. Because much liver damage is not reversible, it is important to take steps to lessen liver damage as best as you can. Recommendations for how to reduce your chances of liver damage include:
- Be vigilant about staying hydrated.
- Exercise daily.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet.
- Only drink in moderation when you do drink.
- Also drink plenty of water when you drink alcohol.
- Mix medications with alcohol as little as possible.
- If you binge drink one day, refrain from drinking for the next few days.
- Stopping drinking entirely is your best way to reduce liver damage, but if that is not realistic, the above steps can help you mitigate potential damage to your liver.
Liver disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, so taking the health of your liver seriously is no joke. In 2016, nearly 4 million adults were diagnosed with liver disease, over 40,000 of whom died.
Liver disease is entirely preventable. It is up to you to make sure you drink responsibility and keep your risk of liver disease low.
Safe Alcohol Consumption
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 86 percent of adults in the U.S. reported drinking at some point in their lifetime, and 56 percent of people reported drinking in the past month.
Alcohol use in the U.S. is a common occurrence and can be done safely. Most people are able to consume alcohol responsibly without developing any complications, such as liver damage.
Consuming alcohol safely includes being conscious about your alcohol intake and how well you take care of your body outside of drinking alcohol. Drinking plenty of fluids, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly are essential for maintaining healthy liver function. Consuming alcohol in moderation when you do drink and avoiding binge drinking are additional measures to ensure safe alcohol consumption.
Not everyone needs to abstain from alcohol completely, but if you have developed signs of liver damage, it is highly recommended to stop drinking and seek medical attention before symptoms get worse.
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