What Alcohol Does To Your Liver

By:    Published: October 8, 2012

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The liver is an amazing organ and is also the largest organ in the human body. It is located in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen and is about the size of a football. It weighs between three and 3.5 pounds. Not only is it the largest single organ in the human body, but it is also the only organ that is capable of repairing itself in the event that it becomes damaged. Unfortunately, that damage often comes from excessive alcohol consumption.

The Liver's Job

The liver has an extremely important job, so important, that if your liver were to completely shut down, you could only survive for a few days. However, it is possible to survive with only a small part of your liver that is functional. This is because the liver has the ability to generate new liver cells from the healthy cells that remain.

The liver has many functions. It acts as a filter, cleaning the body's blood supply of various waste products including medications and poisons. It also controls the production of cholesterol in the body as well as removing excess fats and cholesterol from the body. Other vital functions include:

  • Storing vitamins, sugar and iron for the body to use when it needs energy.
  • Producing clotting factors that help the blood clot in the event of injury. In the case of people with hemophilia, the liver doesn't produce these clotting factors properly.
  • Produce immune factors that help the body fight off infections that would otherwise be deadly.
  • Release bile to help digest food and aid the body in the absorption of nutrients from food.

The Metabolism Of Alcohol

The effects of alcohol on the liver have been well-known for many years. Because the liver is the primary site of alcohol metabolism, it is also the most susceptible to alcohol related damage. Heavy alcohol consumption is the single most common cause of liver diseases. For the sake of clarity, heavy drinking is defined here as someone who consumes 5 to 6 drinks per day over many years.

When alcohol is consumed, it enters the stomach where about 20 percent of the alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream. From there it moves into the small intestines where the remaining 80 percent is absorbed. Once it enters the blood stream, it travels to the liver where the toxic substances are filtered from the blood.

Because alcohol is toxic to the human body, it is the liver’s job to process it safely. When metabolizing the alcohol, a number of by-products are created including acetaldehyde and other free radicals. These substances are toxic to the body and several enzymes in the body are responsible for converting them into substances that are less harmful to the body and disposing of them.

After an alcoholic drink is consumed, the peak of the alcohol concentration in the blood occurs after about 30 to 45 minutes, after which time the level of alcohol in the blood returns to normal, provided that no more drinks are consumed. This entire process takes about one hour, although this can change depending on the amount of drinks consumed, along with other factors like body mass or whether a person is drinking on an empty stomach.

There is a small amount of the alcohol that doesn't make it to the liver. This amount can be found on the breath and in urine, and in the case of nursing mothers, breast milk. This is why law enforcement officers can use breathalyzers to determine if a person has been drinking and how much they have been drinking.

Types Of Liver Damage

There are several types of liver damage, some of which are reversible. These include:

  • Fatty Liver: Fat deposits occur in nearly every heavy drinker, and occasionally in those who don't drink often after they consume just one or two drinks. In most cases, the fat deposits are reversible provided that alcohol consumption ceases and does not lead to other more serious damage.
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis: Alcoholic hepatitis, similar to viral hepatitis, causes serious damage to the liver, some of which may not be reversible. Liver cells become inflamed and some may die, a process called necrosis. Healthy liver cells may turn into scar tissue, a process called fibrosis. The symptoms of alcohol hepatitis are similar to those of viral hepatitis and include fever, jaundice and abdominal pain. Alcoholic hepatitis occurs in about half of all heavy drinkers and can be fatal, but it can also be reversed if the drinker abstains from further alcohol consumption.
  • Alcoholic Cirrhosis: This is the most severe form of liver damage and occurs in about 15 to 30 percent of all heavy drinkers. It is characterized by severe fibrosis which causes the stiffening of the blood vessels of the liver and the distortion of the internal structure of the liver. This distortion leads to dysfunction of the liver and, in turn, dysfunction in other areas of the body as well. The extent of the cirrhosis determines whether or not it is fatal. If enough healthy liver cells remain, the liver can stabilize itself if the drinker permanently abstains from further alcohol consumption.

Once The Damage Is Done

The outcome of liver damage depends upon its severity. If the damage is not severe and the drinker abstains from further alcohol consumption, the liver has the ability to repair itself. However, once liver tissue dies, that tissue cannot fully regenerate, which makes it harder for the healthy cells to pick up the slack.

While conventional logic holds that a heavy drinker will progress from a fatty liver to alcohol hepatitis, and then on to cirrhosis, it is not uncommon for a heavy drinker to suddenly develop severe alcoholic hepatitis and die from the disease before cirrhosis, which takes considerably longer to be fatal, develops. It is also possible for a heavy drinker to develop cirrhosis without ever showing signs of alcoholic hepatitis.

There are also other complications that can be seen in heavy drinkers that occur as a result of the liver being damaged and unable to do its job, such as problems with brain function, kidney function and the development of a certain, very serious type of high blood pressure in the liver that can lead to death. The development of liver and pancreatic cancer have also been linked to heavy drinking.

Once damage to the liver occurs, the most important thing that a drinker can do is stop drinking. This will go a long way toward helping the liver heal, though other medical intervention may be necessary. While a drink or two on occasion does not usually result in serious harm, the price one pays for a lifetime of heavy drinking simply isn't worth the cost.

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