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How Does Alcohol Affect Liver Health?

Alcohol can take a severe toll on your health. For example, alcohol misuse can do damage to your liver and cause alcoholic liver disease.5

Alcoholic liver disease is a health condition that can occur after years of heavy drinking. When you drink heavily over a long period, scarring and cirrhosis can happen. Cirrhosis refers to the final phase of alcoholic liver disease.5

While not everyone who misuses alcohol will develop alcoholic liver disease, your chances increase the longer you drink and the more alcohol you consume.5 And you do not have to get drunk in order to develop the disease.

While alcoholic liver disease is common in people between 40 and 50 years old, men are more likely to have it than women. That said, women may develop alcoholic liver disease with less exposure to alcohol than men. Anyone with a family history of liver disease is at a higher risk for it.5 Diet, gender, and co-occurring liver conditions also affect your risk.6

If you are concerned that you may have alcoholic liver disease, your doctor will likely perform a blood test, take a biopsy of your liver, and perform a function test of your liver.5 They may also run other tests to rule out other possible health conditions.

If you do indeed have alcoholic liver disease, symptoms will vary depending on the severity of it. 

Generally, the symptoms of alcohol-induced liver disease include:5

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Dry mouth and thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Red feet and/or hands
  • Spider-like veins
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Dark or bloody stool
  • Frequent nose bleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Blood in vomit
  • Fluid buildup in the legs (also known as edema)
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen (also known as ascites)
  • Easy bruising
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Pain in the arms and legs
  • Numbness and/or tingling in the arms and legs
  • Agitation

If you are suffering from liver damage, you should quit drinking alcohol completely.5

Of course, it may not be easy to stop drinking if you struggle with alcohol use disorder. Reach out for professional medical advice to safely cut back on or quit your alcohol intake. Addiction treatment from licensed medical professionals is available.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

How much alcohol is too much varies from person to person. Various factors play into how alcohol affects different people including age, weight, gender, and more. 

To avoid drinking too much alcohol, you should drink in moderation. Generally, this means no more than one drink a day for women or a maximum of two drinks a day for men.1

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Types of Alcohol-Induced Liver Conditions

Alcohol misuse can lead to three types of liver conditions:

  1. Alcoholic hepatitis: Alcoholic hepatitis refers to the swelling and inflammation of your liver. Acute inflammation of the liver can result in the death of liver cells, and permanent scarring often follows.6
  2. Fatty liver disease: Alcohol misuse can also lead to fatty liver disease, which refers to excess fat buildup in the liver.3
  3. Cirrhosis: Over time, prolonged alcohol consumption can lead to scarring and cirrhosis of the liver. Damage caused by cirrhosis, including scar tissue, may be irreversible.5

Up to 35 percent of people with alcohol-induced liver damage develop alcoholic hepatitis, Meanwhile, between 10 and 20 percent of them go on to develop cirrhosis.3

Repairing Your Liver From Alcohol: Is It Possible?

Your liver is an important organ. It sits under your ribs on the right side of your abdomen. And it helps to filter your body’s waste, make bile so you can digest food, store sugar to give you energy, make proteins, and more.2

Alcoholic liver disease can damage these functions. While it is treatable if you catch it early, severe liver damage may be irreversible and lead to other health complications. 

These include, but are not limited to:2

  • Bleeding disorders
  • Buildup of fluid
  • Infection from the fluid buildup (also known as bacterial peritonitis)
  • Enlarged veins that easily bleed
  • Increased pressure in the liver’s blood vessels (also known as portal hypertension)
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver cancer

Currently, there are not any FDA-approved pharmacological or nutritional therapies to treat alcoholic liver disease.7 If you have fatty liver disease, you should stop drinking alcohol completely and eat a healthy, low-salt diet. Lifestyle changes are critical.8

You should also talk to your healthcare provider about medications. These might include diuretics to get rid of fluid buildup, Vitamin K or blood medications to prevent bleeding, and antibiotics to treat infections, among others.2 Healthcare professionals also recommend that you get vaccinated to protect your liver from viruses like hepatitis A and B.8

Your doctor may also explore endoscopic treatments if you have enlarged esophagus veins, or they may have to remove any fluid buildup from your abdomen. 

In some cases, the placement of a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) is necessary to restore blood flow within your liver. And in severe cases, a liver transplant is also necessary. But this is only possible for those who have successfully stayed away from alcohol for at least six months.2

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How Long Does it Take for the Liver to Repair From Alcohol?

How long it takes for your liver to repair from alcohol misuse depends on the severity of the damage. It may take a few days, weeks, or months for your liver to recover. Sometimes, liver damage cannot be repaired.

Prolonged alcohol misuse (over years) can significantly inhibit your liver’s ability to regenerate.

Can a Month of No Alcohol Repair Your Liver?

A month of no alcohol can help your liver regenerate if the damage done is not too severe. If you have liver damage from drinking alcohol, you should stop drinking for longer than a month. You should stop drinking alcohol completely.

How Long Does it Take Your Body to Heal From Alcohol?

How long it takes your body to heal from alcohol depends on a few factors, including how much and how often you drink, your age, weight, gender, and more. All of these can influence the way alcohol affects you.

The amount of time your body requires to heal also depends on the damage alcohol has done. Heavy drinking can damage your liver, stomach, brain, heart, and entire central nervous system. 

It increases your risk of several cancers (mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, and, for women, breast cancer). And it can weaken your immune system, which can lead to a wealth of health complications.1

Struggling With Alcohol Misuse or Alcoholism?

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder, know the signs and seek professional help. You are not alone.

About 61 million Americans were identified as binge drinkers, and 16 million were classified as heavy alcohol users in 2014.4 Alcohol use disorder can be a deadly disease if you don’t treat it.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

The symptoms of alcohol use disorder generally include:1

  • Drinking more than you should
  • Drinking to escape reality or as a coping mechanism
  • Drinking alone often
  • Craving alcohol often
  • Needing to drink more and more to achieve the same effects
  • Continuing to drink despite the physical, mental, emotional, and financial tolls it takes
  • Allowing alcohol to interfere with relationships and/or obligations to loved ones and work
  • Difficulty cutting back on alcohol intake
  • Frequent failed attempts to quit drinking
  • Engaging in risky behavior
  • Experiencing personality changes when drinking

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or someone you know is dealing with alcohol use disorder, you do not have to navigate the road to recovery alone. 

Treatment options are available, including:1

  • Inpatient and outpatient rehab
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Support groups
  • Holistic therapy
  • Medication (disulfiram, naltrexone, or acamprosate)

Consult your primary care physician and mental health professionals about the best treatment options for you. And get help before it’s too late.

Resources

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Alcohol Abuse.” Harvard Health, 5 Dec. 2014.

Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease.” Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.” American Liver Foundation, 13 May 2021.

Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits.” The Nutrition Source, 12 Nov. 2020.

Alcoholic Liver Disease.” Mount Sinai Health System.

Exploring Alcohol’s Effects on Liver Function.” Alcohol, Health and Research World.

Osna, Natalia A, et al. “Alcoholic Liver Disease: Pathogenesis and Current Management.” Alcohol Research : Current Reviews, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2017.

Wynne Armand, MD. “Fatty Liver Disease: What It Is and What to Do about It.” Harvard Health, 14 Apr. 2020.

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