The liver is the largest organ in the human body. It’s responsible for aiding in food digestion, keeping stores of energy and filtering out toxins.
There are several forms of liver disease, some caused by viruses, genetically inherited disorders or from the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol.
Alcohol-related liver disease symptoms can develop slowly, over decades.
Virtually all heavy drinkers, according to the American Liver Foundation, develop a fatty liver and around 10 to 20 percent develop cirrhosis, the most serious type of preventable liver conditions.
What Causes Alcohol-Related Liver Disease?
The liver is only able to process small amounts of alcohol at a time. For most people, the liver can metabolize approximately one alcoholic drink per hour.
Any unprocessed alcohol stays in the bloodstream, and this is mainly what causes a person to become intoxicated.
Alcohol-related liver disease is caused by chronic alcohol use, misuse, and abuse over time that overwhelms and damages liver cells, leaving behind scar tissue that makes it harder for the organ to stay healthy and filter out toxins.
Liver Damage From Alcoholism
Early signs of liver damage from alcohol starts with inflammation.
Unlike other organs in the body, however, an inflamed liver may not cause any pain or discomfort, making it difficult to detect there is a problem unless a person and their physician are specifically testing for inflammation.
Untreated liver inflammation begins to leave behind scar tissue where healthy tissue was once present.
This early stage of liver disease is known as fibrosis. It decreases blood circulation throughout the liver and forces the remaining healthy tissue to work harder.
As the fibrous scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, cirrhosis develops. Unfortunately, this critical stage may be the first symptoms of liver disease that a person notices.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Disease
While it’s not always easy to recognize the initial symptoms of liver problems, once the damage reaches unhealthy levels, they will become more apparent.
The noticeable signs and symptoms of liver disease or damage can include some of the following:
- Detectible bruising or bleeding
- Severe skin itchiness
- Accumulation of water build up in the legs and abdomen
- Jaundice, where the skin and eyes develop a yellow coloring
- An increased sensitivity to the side effects of various medications
- Fever, nausea, vomiting or discolored stool
- Chronic fatigue or exhaustion on a regular basis
- Difficulty with memory, concentration and sleeping as a result of toxins that build up in the bloodstream and brain
Untreated cirrhosis of the liver can lead to issues such as liver failure, a life threatening condition, and liver cancer.
At this stage, treatment is usually focused on slowing or stopping the spread of the liver damage. Unfortunately, once it has progressed to a certain point, the liver will be unable to totally heal itself.
Not all liver problems are caused by alcohol use and abuse, and the most common non-alcohol induced liver diseases are hepatitis A, B and C.
The various types of hepatitis can develop from parasites or viruses that infect the liver and are spread by blood, semen, contaminated water or food. Obesity can also lead to liver damage.
Is it Possible to Prevent Liver Disease or Damage?
The most effective liver damage prevention is leading a healthy lifestyle.
Proper nutrition and maintaining proper weight can help prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver associated with obesity.
Practicing safe sex decreases the chance of sexually transmitted conditions that may lead to liver disease, as well as not using illicit intravenous drugs.
For those at an increased risk of getting hepatitis, either due to lifestyle or geographic location, there are available vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
Alcohol-induced liver damage and disease is completely preventable by abstaining from alcohol or drinking in moderation.
Recommended Drinking Limits
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is noted as one drink a day for women and two for men, and also notes that there is no type of alcoholic beverage that is safer to drink than another.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines low-risk drinking for most people as up to 3 drinks a day for women, not to exceed 7 drinks in a week. For men, the daily limit is 4 drinks a day or less than 14 drinks a week.
It should be noted that these numbers are for healthy people without any alcohol-related issues.
People that should not drink alcohol include:
- Those under the age of 21
- Women who are pregnant
- People taking medication that could adversely interact with alcohol
- Alcoholics or those in recovery
The CDC states that it is never safe for people with some types of cancer or those with liver disease to drink alcohol of any kind.
For anyone concerned about liver disease or damage, the best course of action is to stop drinking immediately and schedule an appointment with a doctor to have a thorough examination.