There are a wide variety of issues that can affect the liver, but how does alcohol affect the liver? Short-term misuse can cause scarring, inflammation, hypoglycemia, and severe dehydration. Long-term abuse can cause fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and liver cirrhosis.
The liver is the primary filtering system for the body. It is tasked with breaking down and filtering out anything harmful before it gets into the bloodstream. Converting extra glucose, producing cholesterol, and regulating blood clotting are also essential jobs done by the liver. The liver is a self-repairing organ, which means that it can repair small amounts of damage. The liver can have a portion cut out and regrow the missing piece. Excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorders can cause problems that can cause irreversible and sometimes fatal problems if left untreated, and drinking continues in large amounts.
An alcoholic use disorder, including binge drinking, can affect the liver very quickly. Even after just a few days, the damage has already started. Initially, alcohol causes a chemical imbalance that directly interferes with liver functions.
Dehydration begins with the first drink. Due to the alcohol’s triggering of increased urination, the body starts dumping its water stores. In turn, this causes the liver to work harder to pull water from wherever it’s still available. Both of these occurrences lead to dehydration, and a considerable headache afterward.
Additionally, the liver must stop other necessary functions, such as glucose break down, to work overtime to convert the ethanol in alcohol. This ethanol is converted into acetic acid, and then further converted into carbon dioxide and water. The reduction in glucose can cause problems, too, including fatigue and delayed cognitive functions.
Inflammation and scarring are also short-term effects of alcohol. Alcohol produces a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde when it reaches the liver. This chemical damages cells in the liver, which can lead to inflammation and scarring.
Continued heavy drinking can lead to several potentially dangerous conditions. Fatty liver, also called steatosis, is the result of an accumulation of fat in the liver. It is considered the earliest form of advanced liver disease. This condition is also reversible if alcohol consumption stops.
Alcoholic hepatitis, the next progression from a fatty liver, can be mild or chronic. A soft case is more severe than a fatty liver, but it is still reversible. Chronic alcoholic hepatitis, however, is dangerous. This form can lead to liver failure and death.
Liver cirrhosis is the most advanced liver disease that can be caused by alcohol. In this case, healthy liver tissue gets replaced with scar tissue, and liver cells die. Cirrhosis cannot be reversed and is often fatal without a transplant.
Signs of Liver Damage
Common signs of liver damage include yellowing of the eyes and skin, dark-colored urine, and discolored stools. People with liver damage may also experience abdominal pain, swelling in the ankles and legs, and chronic fatigue. Increased itchiness, disorientation, and easy bruising are symptoms that may occur as well.
So, how does alcohol affect the liver? In short, alcohol interferes with liver function. It causes scarring. If left untreated and drinking continues, the damage that alcohol causes can ultimately lead to permanent damage. Necessarily, alcohol use disorders can lead to death.