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What is Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs from overconsuming alcohol that damages the liver. This leads to a buildup of fats, scarring, and inflammation.
The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body. It has over 500 functions. These functions include:
- Filtering out blood toxins
- Storing energy
- Producing hormones and proteins
- Regulating cholesterol and blood sugar
Liver damage can affect the whole body.
Once liver damage starts, it can take a long time to become noticeable. This is because the liver is generally highly effective at repairing and regenerating itself.
In many cases, by the time liver damage is discovered, it is irreversible. Alcoholic fatty liver disease can be fatal.
In 2014, the number of deaths resulting from alcoholic liver disease in the United States was 19,388.2
Who Is at Risk For Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty liver disease is more common in people who:
- Have type 2 diabetes and prediabetes
- Have obesity
- Are middle aged or older
- Are Hispanic, followed by non-Hispanic whites
- Have high levels of fats in the blood, like cholesterol and triglycerides
- Have high blood pressure
- Take certain drugs, like corticosteroids and some cancer drugs
- Have certain metabolic disorders, like metabolic syndrome
- Have rapid weight loss
- Have certain infections, like hepatitis C
- Have been exposed to some toxins
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How Does the Liver Process Alcohol?
It takes the body around one hour to process one alcoholic drink. This period increases with each drink. The higher someone’s blood alcohol content is, the longer it takes to process alcohol.
The liver can process a certain quantity of alcohol at a time. When someone has drunk too much, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver travels through the bloodstream.
The circulating alcohol starts affecting the heart and brain, which is how people become intoxicated.
Chronic alcohol use leads to the destruction of liver cells, resulting in scarring of the liver (known as cirrhosis), alcoholic hepatitis, cellular mutation, and liver cancer.
These conditions typically progress from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis. Excessive drinkers may develop alcoholic cirrhosis without first developing hepatitis.
What Causes Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease?
Alcoholic fatty liver disease develops due to excessive alcohol consumption.
Your liver breaks down most of the alcohol you consume so that it can leave your body. But the process of breaking it down can produce harmful substances.6
These substances can damage liver cells, encourage inflammation, and weaken your body’s natural defenses. The more alcohol you consume, the more you damage your liver.
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What are the Symptoms of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease?
Once alcoholic fatty liver disease progresses, its symptoms become easier to notice.
The more recognizable signs of late-stage liver disease include:
- Jaundice, or a yellow tint of the whites of the eyes and the skin
- Swelling of the lower limbs
- A buildup of fluid in the abdomen, known as ascites
- Considerably itchy skin
- Fingernails that curve excessively, known as clubbing
- Losing a significant amount of weight
- General weakness
- Blood in vomit and stools
- Bleeding and bruising more easily
- More sensitive reactions to alcohol and drugs
Once the symptoms are noticeable, the condition has reached an advanced stage. Meeting a doctor is a crucial next step.
How Long Before Alcoholic Liver Disease Turns Into Cirrhosis?
It may take between 10 to 30 years for cirrhosis to develop. People suffering from chronic alcoholism are typically unaware of liver damage as they are asymptomatic in the early stages.
The development of cirrhosis differs from person to person and depends on various factors, including:
- Other health conditions
How is Alcoholic Liver Disease Diagnosed?
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) is diagnosed when tests for other medical conditions display a damaged liver. If a doctor suspects liver disease, they will arrange a blood test to determine how well your liver works.7
Your doctor may also ask about your alcohol consumption. It is essential to be honest about how much and how often you consume alcohol.
Unnecessary testing may lead to a delay in the treatment you need.
Treatment Options for Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease
There are various treatment options for alcoholic fatty liver disease:
Quitting drinking is one of the only treatments to reverse alcoholic liver disease. Abstinence from alcohol can help to reverse some early stages of alcoholic liver disease.
Once diagnosed with fatty liver disease, quitting drinking may reverse the condition within two to six weeks.3
When a person is diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease at any stage, it is strongly suggested never to resume drinking. Any conditions that have reversed are likely to return once drinking restarts.
As alcohol dependency can make it challenging to stop drinking alcohol, it is necessary to lessen alcohol intake gradually.
Weight loss and stopping smoking can help treat alcoholic fatty liver disease. Additionally, being overweight and smoking have both shown to worsen alcoholic liver disease.
Corticosteroids or pentoxifylline may help reduce inflammation in people with acute alcoholic hepatitis while receiving treatment in hospitals.
Other medications that may help and are being studied include:
- Probiotics and antibiotics
- Stem cell therapy medicines targeting the inflammation pathway
Taking a daily multivitamin is also a good idea.
For those suffering from liver failure, the liver completely ceases to function. This can occur from advanced-stage liver disease, which means that a liver transplant is the only option.4
Usually, people who can demonstrate at least six months of abstinence from alcohol before the procedure are candidates. The organ systems must also be healthy.
A liver transplant is a complex procedure that depends on a donor being available.
Anti-rejection medicines provided after a transplant can increase the risk of severe infections and certain cancers. A liver transplant is the last resort.
Abstaining from alcohol and treating alcoholic liver disease early are the most effective ways for a person to improve their chances of reversing or slowing the disease.
Is Alcoholic Fatty Liver Reversible?
Yes, alcoholic fatty liver disease is reversible. If you abstain from alcohol for two to six weeks, your liver should return to normal.7
What is the Life Expectancy for Alcoholic Liver Disease?
The life expectancy of a person with alcoholic liver disease reduces significantly as the condition develops.
On average, one out of three individuals with the most advanced stages of alcoholic liver disease is still alive after two years.5 When the body can manage cirrhosis, the usual lifespan is six to 12 years.
Those with a less severe disease will live longer if they remain abstinent from alcohol. Some stages of liver disease can be reversed, and life expectancy can increase when a person stops consuming alcohol altogether.
Treatment for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction
While there is currently no cure for alcoholism, the condition can be effectively managed and treated.
Professional treatment in a rehab center can help those suffering from alcohol use disorder recover from substance use problems and remain sober.
If you or a loved one are considering professional treatment from problem drinking, some options include:
- Detoxification to manage withdrawal symptoms
- Inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation
- Behavioral therapies
- Peer support groups
Can Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Be Prevented?
The most effective way to prevent fatty liver disease is to follow a healthy lifestyle. Try to remain at a healthy weight and follow a nourishing and healthy diet. If you are overweight or obese, try to lose weight gradually.
You should also try to exercise regularly and take any medications as prescribed.
Of course, it is essential to limit your alcohol consumption, too.