Alcohol v/s the Liver

    Liver disease affects people of all ages. One in every 12 Indians suffers from some form of liver or biliary tract disease.There are over 100 diseases of the liver, only one of which is directly related to alcohol.


    What does the liver do?

    The liver processes everything a person consumes,including alcohol. Among other functions,the liver cleanses the blood,regulates the supply of fuel to the body, manufactures many essential proteins, etc.


    What happens when a person has a drink?

    Alcohol affects everyone. When a person has a drink,the alcohol is absorbed directly through the wall of the stomach and intestine into the bloodstream, where it is distributed rapidly throughout the body. Alcohol changes the function of each cell that it enters.

    The liver is the sole organ involved in processing alcohol and only a certain quantity of alcohol can be detoxified over a period of time. In the meantime, excess alcohol affects the brain, heart, muscles and other tissues of the body.


    How does alcohol affect the liver?

    When the liver has too much alcohol to handle, normal liver function may be interrupted, leading to a chemical imbalance. If the liver is required to detoxify alcohol hour after hour, it can lead to a fatty liver and more seriously, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.


    How much alcohol is safe?

    This depends on the individual's body weight, gender,etc.; for example, women are more susceptible to alcohol-related liver damage. Recommendations are that alcohol consumption be limited to less than two drinks a day.

    If a person's total weekly consumption of alcohol exceeds 14 drinks, serious damage may be done to the liver.

    Mixing alcohol and medication may damage the liver. A person should check with his/her doctor about taking essential medication and drinking alcohol. However, alcohol should not be taken with drugs such as paracetamol.


    With respect to different types of alcohol, is one safer than another?

    No. It is the amount of alcohol present in a drink that matters, not the type of drink. One "drink" is the equivalent of either;

    • 12 oz. (341 ml) beer
    • 5 oz. (142 ml) wine
    • 3 oz. (86 ml) sherry or port
    • 1½ oz. (43 ml) spirits (Whisky, Rum, Vodka, Brandy, etc.)

    Each of the above has the same effect on the liver, whether taken alone or diluted.


    How does a person know if his/her liver has been damaged by alcohol?

    More than three-quarters of liver cells may be non-functioning before a person notices any symptoms. But, by then it may be too late to do anything about it. So, it's important to have regular check-ups with a hepatologist (liver specialist), who will be able to detect early signs of liver disease through physical examination and blood tests.


    What are the symptoms of alcohol-related liver damage?

    If the liver is not performing its functions properly, the rest of the body will soon be affected by the lack of nutrients and excess waste products present in the blood.

    Complications arising from liver damage include fatigue, loss of appetite, lowered resistance, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), swelling of the abdomen, intestinal bleeding, brain dysfunction and kidney failure.


    Can alcohol-related liver damage be reversed or cured?

    If caught early, minimal liver damage can be reversed if a person abstains from drinking alcohol. When there is no alcohol in the bloodstream, the liver cells will be able to return to normal because the liver has a tremendous capacity to regenerate.

    Alcohol-related diseases vary in severity. Fatty liver and mild alcoholic hepatitis can be cured. However,advanced alcoholic hepatitis can result in serious illness. When cirrhosis develops, the structure of the liver is permanently damaged. The symptoms, signs and outcome of cirrhosis depends upon the associated hepatitis and also at which stage the patient has stopped alcohol abuse.If there is severe hepatitis, or the patient has been too late in stopping alcohol abuse, then it eventually leads to liver failure and death.

    Abstaining from alcohol can be associated with a slow,but marked, improvement in liver function. If necessary, a hepatologist may also suggest that a person be treated with new drug therapies. In many cases, these treatments allow people to live normal lives.