The liver is an organ that often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. When we think of the most important vital organs, you may think of the brain, the heart, and the lungs. But the liver plays a major role in your body’s normal healthy processes. You can live with one lung, you can live without a colon, but if your liver isn’t functioning, you’ll need a new one, or you’re not long for this world.
Alcoholism is a serious disease that affects millions of Americans every year. Substance use disorders are classified as mental health problems because addiction is a chronic disease that affects the brain. However, alcoholism affects more than your mind; it can affect your physical health, social life, finances, and even your legal status. Because alcohol is also one of the most common illicit drugs in the world, there have been many studies on its long-term effects on the body. Alcohol can lead to a wide variety of cancers, cognitive impairments, nerve damage, and liver damage.
The liver is often the first major organ to be adversely affected by chronic alcoholism. It can be damaged over time, leading to diseases like cancer, but it can also be damaged by acute intoxication. Alcohol poisoning can be dangerous because of how it affects your nervous system, but it can also cause serious damage to your liver. However, the liver also has fairly remarkable healing abilities.
If you donate up to half of your healthy liver, your remaining half will grow back within a year. People who donate parts of their livers often regain normal liver function after a month. If your liver isn’t damaged to the point of needing replacement, you can regain a normal, functioning liver after chronic alcohol use.
But how does the liver heal and how long does it take? Learn more about how alcohol affects the liver and how your body can recover after you stop abusing alcohol.
When you drink alcohol, before it makes its way into your blood and then to your brain, your liver is the first line of defense against intoxication. Your liver filters out potentially harmful toxins from your blood and prevents them from making their way to your brain and other organs. Alcohol is essentially poisonous. If every drop you drank were allowed to flow in your bloodstream and make its way to your brain and organs, it would do a lot of damage.
You’d feel extremely drunk after just one beverage; then it would harm other organs that your bloodstream takes it to. However, the liver is good at its job; it cleans your blood whenever you ingest something that could do you harm. But if you drink enough in one sitting, it will exceed your liver’s capacity to clean. In fact, the liver can process one standard drink per hour before the alcohol starts to get past it. When you start to feel the effects, alcohol has gotten through the liver and into your brain.
As your liver works overtime trying to process and filter out excessive alcohol, the strain starts to take its toll. Continued alcohol abuse without giving your liver time to rest and recovery will cause it to start building up fatty deposits. After years of drinking, your liver can swell, causing inflammation and scarring that prevents it from doing its job efficiently.”
Alcohol consumption can lead to a variety of liver diseases with increasing severity and reversibility. Some liver problems can be completely reversed if you stop drinking alcohol. Others can be deadly and may require a liver transplant to treat effectively. Here are some common consequences of alcoholism that are related to the liver:
Fatty liver disease is common, especially among people who are over age 40. The disease is the accumulation of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the liver that can have mild effects on liver function and overall health. For the most part, fatty liver disease doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms, but in some cases, it can cause fatigue, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Obesity makes it more likely for you to have fatty deposits in the liver and if you also abuse alcohol, it can increase your risk of developing more serious liver disease.
If you stop drinking, fatty liver disease is completely reversible. The time it takes to reverse fatty liver depends on other factors like your weight and diet. But generally, healthy people with a good diet can recover from alcoholic fatty liver disease within six weeks of alcohol abstinence.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a more serious liver disease that involves inflammation of the liver that’s caused by drinking. In most cases, the disease is caused by years of heavy drinking. Heavy drinking doesn’t guarantee alcoholic hepatitis, and it can sometimes occur in people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol. Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis are more noticeable than a fatty liver. It can cause yellow skin and eyes (jaundice), bloating, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
In most cases, alcoholic hepatitis is reversible but may cause some leftover damage. Alcohol hepatitis can cause several complications including enlarged veins that are caused by an inflamed liver. These swollen veins can back up to the stomach or esophagus and burst which can be life-threatening. Increased toxicity because your liver is unable to clean your blood efficiently can cause confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech as toxins build up in your body. In some cases, an inflamed liver can lead to liver failure. Any of these symptoms mean that you need medical attention as soon as possible.
The recovery period will depend on how severe your alcohol hepatitis is. In some cases, you will need a liver transplant to treat the disease effectively. In other cases, you might be successfully treated with anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, and cholesterol medication. However, it will take at least six months of alcohol abstinence to recover.
Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to irreversible scarring and damage that’s called alcoholic liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis causes the liver to become stiff and swollen in a way that impedes liver function and often needs a transplant. Symptoms of cirrhosis can include muscle atrophy, easy bruising, weight loss, jaundice, swollen legs and abdomen, vomiting blood, confusion, memory loss, and mental fog.
Without treatment or a transplant, cirrhosis is fatal. The disease usually can’t be reversed unless you get a transplant, and it’s difficult for people with alcohol use disorders to qualify for a transplant. Liver transplant eligibility requirements say that you need to be alcohol-free for six months and free of substance abuse. If a person has an alcohol use disorder, they will need treatment before they become eligible for a liver transplant.
Cleveland Clinic. (2018, June). Alcoholic Liver Disease. from http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/hepatology/alcoholic-liver-disease/
Mayo Clinic. (2018, November 30). Alcoholic hepatitis. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcoholic-hepatitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351388
Merck & Co. (2018, May). Fatty Liver – Liver and Gallbladder Disorders. from https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/liver-and-gallbladder-disorders/manifestations-of-liver-disease/fatty-liver
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). What Is A Standard Drink? from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink
UPMC. (n.d.). Liver Transplant Eligibility Requirements | UPMC. from https://www.upmc.com/services/transplant/liver/candidates