Excessive drinking creates havoc in the brain and the body, particularly the liver. It is important to understand the function of the liver, how it is impacted by alcohol abuse and available treatments for these conditions including fatty liver disease, cirrhosis (scarring), and hepatitis.
Role of the Liver
The liver is a vital organ in our bodies which processes everything that is eaten. Some of the functions include storing glycogen, processing fats and proteins from digested foods, making proteins for blood clotting, processing medications, removing or processing alcohol, toxins and poisons for elimination from the body and making bile to help digest fats.
How Alcohol is Processed
When a person drinks alcohol, it becomes absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. Blood from the stomach and intestines goes through the liver before it circulates through the body. Alcohol is highly concentrated in the blood flowing through the liver. The liver is only designed to handle processing of small amounts of toxins or alcohol which pass through. When excessive drinking occurs, it can cause damage which may be irreversible.
Types of Damage
Fatty liver disease results from a buildup of fat cells in the liver. This condition can easily be reversed by cessation of excessive drinking and does not cause serious damage unless the individual continues drinking heavily causing the development of hepatitis.
Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver which can range from mild to severe. An abnormal level of liver enzymes may be the first indication of mild hepatitis. A blood test is done to detect its presence. For more severe cases, liver damage and cirrhosis can occur. Some symptoms of this include nausea, jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes) and occasional pain of the liver. More serious cases can lead to liver failure.
Cirrhosis occurs when scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue causing cell damage and death of the liver cells. Blood flow through the liver can become restricted. Approximately 1 in 10 excessive drinkers will develop cirrhosis at some point in their lives. In the early stages there may be no symptoms, however, as more scar tissue builds and further restricts liver function, symptoms can occur such as fatigue, itchy skin, swelling in the legs, loss of appetite, confusion and slurred speech, among others. Blood tests and an ultrasound are two ways to detect the level of cirrhosis and damage caused, which is irreversible.
Prevention and Treatment
The best way to prevent liver disease is to stop drinking altogether. Fatty liver and alcoholic hepatitis should gradually get better if an individual stops drinking. When scarring of the liver or cirrhosis occurs, it is unlikely to progress further with the cessation of drinking but will not reverse itself. Symptoms will get worse with continued drinking and may require a liver transplant.
Help and treatment are available if you or someone you know is struggling with excessive drinking. LEAD Recovery has trained staff available to help. For more information, call 800-380-0012.