The main victim of heavy drinking, in health terms, is the liver. This is the organ responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. With a nasty selection of liver diseases all linked to alcohol abuse, many people are wondering if there’s still time to save their liver.
In this article, we look at the good news, and bad news, about drinking and its effect on the liver.
Can the liver repair itself after years of drinking?
The short answer is: it depends. The liver is tasked with processing all the chemicals that enter the body and is very good at dealing with harmful toxins. Not only can it continue to function at a limited capacity when damaged, but it can also repair itself to an extent.
With some of the milder liver diseases, which will be discussed later in this article, the liver will likely be able to heal itself fully. Yet there are some more serious liver diseases, such as cirrhosis, where the chances of the liver being able to entirely repair itself are less good.
Still, there is always hope, and with the right treatment, most livers stand a chance of recovering.
What does the liver do?
The liver plays a crucial part in the day-to-day functioning of the body. Its main role is to filter blood before it gets sent to other organs.
The liver also processes chemicals. It breaks down drugs and alcohol so that they can be properly metabolised. It produces bile, a liquid which helps the body to digest fats. It controls blood sugar and cholesterol. It protects the body from infections.
On top of all that, it is the main site where protein is produced from amino acids. Proteins are essential to the body because they are used to grow and maintain tissue.
Even though the liver is a very resilient organ, there is a limit to the abuse it can take. When it is weakened or damaged beyond repair, this creates huge problems for the body. In extreme cases, liver failure can lead to death. Liver disease should not be taken lightly.
What effects does alcohol abuse have on the liver?
While it is now common knowledge that drinking alcohol in excess damages the liver, some drinkers may not know how exactly this occurs.
When you have a drink, the alcohol quickly passes into your bloodstream. Your body then attempts to break it down. This normally takes about an hour. The rest of the alcohol that your body fails to break down filters into the heart and brain, which causes the sensation of being drunk.
Scientists believe that alcohol damages the liver through an effect called ‘oxidative stress’. This is when the liver tries to metabolise alcohol through a chemical reaction. That reaction weakens liver cells, causing scarring.
Alcohol can also harm the intestine, allowing toxins to enter the liver. This leads to further scarring.
What are the main liver diseases caused by alcohol abuse?
Over the course of many years of alcohol abuse, the liver can succumb to several diseases. These range from milder diseases, such as fibrosis, to much more serious ones, such as hepatitis and cirrhosis.
In the following section, we take a closer look at the main liver diseases caused by alcohol abuse, their symptoms and how they are treated.
Liver Fibrosis: Symptoms and Treatment
At the milder end of the spectrum is liver fibrosis. Liver fibrosis is the scarring of cells in the liver. It is caused by chemical reactions that happen when liver cells break down alcohol in the liver.
These scarred cells can no longer do their job. Instead of breaking down toxins, all they do is maintain the structure of the liver. When fewer liver cells are functioning this slows down the flow of blood in the liver.
In small quantities, fibrosis may not cause any symptoms at all. This is why it might be considered a ‘milder’ form of liver disease. But in large quantities, it can lead to cirrhosis, which is a much more dangerous and potentially fatal disease.
Fatty Liver Disease: Symptoms and Treatment
Another disease of the liver is fatty liver disease.
It’s normal to have a certain amount of fat on the liver, but alcohol abuse can cause an abnormal amount of fat to build up. When the liver is storing more than five to six per cent of its weight in fat, this qualifies as fatty liver disease.
Much like liver fibrosis, fatty liver disease can be asymptomatic in small doses. It can also be reversed over time by giving up alcohol and adopting a healthy diet and exercise regime.
In more serious cases, when a large amount of fat accumulates on the liver, this can cause serious health problems. It can lead to fibrosis (scarring). It has also been linked to liver cancer and cirrhosis.
Alcoholic Hepatitis: Symptoms and Treatment
One of the more serious – and more difficult to reverse – diseases which affect the liver is alcoholic hepatitis. This condition normally occurs in those who have abused alcohol for a long period of time. It occasionally occurs in more moderate drinkers too.
Not to be confused with hepatitis A, B, C, D or E, alcoholic hepatitis is a disease caused by drinking. It entails severe inflammation of the liver. Due to its severity, it is much more likely to cause symptoms than fibrosis or fatty liver disease.
These symptoms can include:
- Tenderness of the abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Dry mouth
- Loss of weight
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin)
- The tendency to bleed or bruise easily
It is absolutely essential that you stop drinking and see a doctor if you believe that you may have alcoholic hepatitis. This is not a disease to be taken lightly.
Cirrhosis of the Liver: Symptoms and Treatment
By far the worst of all the alcohol-related liver diseases, alcoholic cirrhosis is irreversible. It is often caused by other liver diseases such as fibrosis.
When the liver is suffering from cirrhosis this means that it is nearly incapable of doing its job. Given the host of functions that the liver is meant to perform, this can be catastrophic for your health.
When someone is suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, that means their liver isn’t breaking down toxins as effectively. Those toxins build up, damaging the body.
In someone with cirrhosis, the liver stops producing enough bile, which is needed for metabolising fats or lipids. This can cause fat to accumulate.
Finally, a liver with cirrhosis does not generate enough protein, which is essential to the body for a variety of reasons.
All these effects of cirrhosis are potentially very serious. That is why it is essential that cirrhosis is diagnosed quickly and treated effectively. Here are some of the symptoms of cirrhosis:
- Loss of muscle definition
- Losing weight
- Reduced appetite
- The build-up of fluid in the legs and abdomen
- Brain fog, confusion and memory loss
- Vomiting blood
- Bleeding in the mouth
- Red palms
- Darker urine
- Difficulty with walking and mobility
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heartbeat
- Changes in personality
- Hair falling out
- Fevers and a higher risk of infection
Unsurprisingly, when the liver shuts down it causes a huge range of unpleasant symptoms. Cirrhosis may be irreversible but it can be slowed down. It is essential that those suffering with this condition stop drinking and seek medical help.
Healing the Liver from Liver Diseases
Now, onto a slightly less depressing topic. How can we help the liver to recover from alcohol-related liver disease?
Here are three simple steps you can take to help your liver heal itself. Remember, the liver regenerates naturally: all you need to do is facilitate that process.
1. Stop drinking alcohol
It may sound obvious, but cutting out alcohol is the best way to give your liver a break. When you stop drinking, your liver cells can heal instead of constantly having to break down large amounts of alcohol.
Even cutting down may not be enough. Especially when it comes to more severe liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis, the only real option is abstinence.
2. Improve your diet
The liver spends a lot of time processing chemicals from fatty, sugary and salty foods. By cutting down on junk food and switching to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, you can take some of the pressure off your liver.
Salty foods, in particular, are to be avoided since they can raise the risk of swelling in the legs and feet, a symptom of cirrhosis.
Another tip is to eat several small meals a day, rather than one or two large ones. This can be helpful because in cases of severe liver damage the body can no longer store glycogen, an energy source, leading to fatigue.
Eating more meals a day or snacks between meals can help to combat tiredness.
Some more foods that are good for the liver:
- Vegetables (broccoli and leafy greens in particular)
- Acidic fruits
- Fibre-rich food
- Fish, nuts and healthy oils
- Green tea
One of the many positives of giving up alcohol is that it makes it easier to adopt a healthy diet. Due to its effect on blood sugar levels, alcohol can cause us to crave foods that are rich in sugar and salt. When alcohol is removed from the equation, those cravings disappear.
3. Exercise regularly
By exercising more – whether that be running, walking, or playing sport – you alleviate some of the stress on the liver and burn fat.
Staying at a healthy weight is good for the body and good for the liver. This is backed up by several scientific studies.
One study found evidence to suggest that walking and strength training on a daily basis can help to prevent cirrhosis.
Another study on lab rats found that regular exercise can alleviate some of the negative effects of alcohol on the liver.
Exercise can also improve mood, concentration and general wellbeing. It releases dopamine, which may help to stem cravings for alcohol.
How long does it take for the liver to heal?
There is, unfortunately, no exact time scale for how long the liver takes to heal itself. It depends on several different factors. The extent of liver damage is a key factor. So is the effectiveness of treatment, and the age and weight of the sufferer.
In some cases of mild fatty liver disease, the liver may be able to heal itself within a few weeks. However, in cases of hepatitis, the liver may take months or years to heal, or may even not be able to heal at all.
Some final thoughts
To come back to the original question, the liver can heal itself and often will as long as the damage is not too severe. If you or a loved one are suffering from liver disease, don’t give up hope. The liver is an incredible organ, and with the right care, it can get back to full health.