Weighing about three pounds, the liver is a dark reddish-brown organ located in the upper right-hand portion of the abdominal cavity. It plays a vital role in maintaining a person’s overall health, but about one in 10 Americans suffers from some type of liver disease. Excess alcohol consumption is one of the most well-known risk factors for liver damage.
What Function Does the Liver Serve?
The liver is the workhorse of the body’s digestive system—performing over 500 different functions that are essential for health. Some of the more noteworthy jobs the liver performs include:
- Breaking down fats that are eaten
- Converting excess carbohydrates and protein into forms that can be stored for later use
- Storing vitamins and nutrients
- Keeping sugar in the bloodstream constant
- Removing waste products and toxins through bile
- Releasing the plasma proteins necessary to clot blood
- Breaking down old or damaged blood cells
When a person drinks, the liver is tasked with processing over 90% of the alcohol consumed. The remainder leaves the body through urine, sweat, and breathing.
What Amount of Alcohol Consumption Is Safe for the Liver?
Alcohol is a toxin that the body must work hard to eliminate. This toxin can also affect how the chemicals in the liver perform the tasks that are needed to keep a person healthy.
There is no level of alcohol consumption that is entirely safe for the liver, even though most people will not experience significant liver damage from occasional drinking.
The CDC’s definition of moderate drinking was created based on the desire to minimize the risk of negative health effects related to alcohol consumption—including the potential for liver damage. In an otherwise healthy individual, moderate drinking is defined as two drinks or less per day for men and one drink or less per day for women. One drink is defined as one 12-ounce beer, one shot (1 and 1/4 ounces) of whiskey, or one four-ounce glass of wine. If there are no other risk factors, drinking at this level results in the lowest risk of lasting liver damage.
It is a common misconception that beer is somehow “safer” for the liver than wine or whiskey. All alcohol consumption carries the same level of risk on a per-drink basis, regardless of the type of alcohol you are drinking. However, binge drinking is the riskiest type of drinking because alcohol is being consumed at a rate faster than what the body can effectively process.
What Is Alcoholic Liver Disease?
Alcoholic liver disease is a general term that refers to liver damage caused by alcohol consumption. There are three types of alcoholic liver disease.
- Fatty liver. The most common liver problem related to alcohol consumption, fatty liver refers to an enlargement of the liver due to the build-up of fat inside the liver cells. It is estimated that as many as 20% of regular drinkers have fatty liver disease.
- Alcoholic hepatitis. An acute inflammation of the liver, alcoholic hepatitis results in the death of liver cells that is often followed by permanent scarring.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis. When normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, this is referred to as alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the most advanced type of alcoholic liver disease and can lead to complete liver failure with the need for a liver transplant.
What Other Risk Factors Play a Role in the Development of Liver Disease?
There are a lot of different factors that influence how long it will take before alcohol consumption damages a person’s liver. Some people start to show signs of liver damage after five to 10 years, while others take 20 or 30 years to show the same level of impairment. In a few cases, liver damage never occurs despite heavy alcohol consumption.
Factors that can increase a person’s risk of alcohol-related liver damage include:
- A family history of liver problems
- Combining alcohol with other drugs, including acetaminophen
- Regular exposure to cleaning solvents, aerosolized paint, or other toxic chemicals
- Type 2 diabetes
Even gender plays a role in a person’s risk of liver disease, with men having chronic liver disease or cirrhosis more than women.
What Are the Signs of Liver Damage?
Liver disease is dangerous because it often produces little or no symptoms at first. When symptoms do occur, they often overlap with other common health conditions. Common symptoms of liver disease include:
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Nausea or vomiting
- Itchy skin
- Dark urine
- Pale stools
- Chronic fatigue
- Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
Liver damage is most often diagnosed with a blood test, although a doctor may also order an imaging test such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI to better understand the extent of the damage.
What Are the Benefits of Addiction Treatment?
In the earliest stages of fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis, it is possible to reverse the damage to the liver caused by excessive drinking through abstinence from alcohol and a healthy diet. However, alcoholic cirrhosis can’t be reversed. At this stage, doctors recommend refraining from further alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of complete liver failure.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we provide a full continuum of care for men and women with alcohol use disorders. Our Pennsylvania residential addiction treatment center encourages the development of a wellness-focused lifestyle that heals the mind, body, and spirit, while our continuing care resources help support the transition back to independent living. Contact us today to learn more about how our programs can help you take the first steps towards a brighter future.