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Doing damage: Alcohol and your liver

Drinking too much alcohol for too long can cause serious, sometimes fatal, changes in your liver.

The liver is the largest organ in the body and one of the most complex. It performs several essential functions, including:

  • Filtering blood.
  • Secreting bile, a fluid essential for digestion.
  • Storing essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Producing amino acids, which are essential for repairing damage to body tissues and creating new cells.
  • Helping control blood sugar levels.
  • Producing the chemicals that control blood clotting.

The liver is also responsible for breaking down most of the alcohol that enters the body (small amounts are released through sweating, urine and the breath).

While the liver is breaking down alcohol, all of its other functions become secondary. Protein and fat build up in the liver, causing it to swell and getting in the way of its other tasks. Toxic chemicals are produced during the breakdown of alcohol, which can damage liver cells and inflame liver tissue.

After years of heavy drinking, this tissue damage and inflammation can lead to scarring that changes the liver's structure and makes it difficult for the liver to function at all.

Fortunately, this progressive damage can usually be stopped or even reversed if the heavy drinking stops. The longer the drinking continues, the greater the risk of liver disease, according to the American Liver Foundation (ALF).

According to the ALF, alcohol-related liver disease usually progresses in these stages:

  • Fatty liver. This condition occurs fairly soon in almost all people who drink heavily. It happens when fat builds up inside liver cells because the liver can't break it down properly.  
  • Alcoholic hepatitis develops in up to 35% of heavy drinkers, according to the ALF. This results in inflammation and early scarring of the liver. Milder forms can potentially be reversed with abstinence. However, its most severe forms can result in liver failure and death.
  • Cirrhosis is the most serious type of alcoholic liver disease. At this point, fibrous scar tissue has replaced normal liver cells and tissues, making it impossible for the liver to work properly. The condition may stabilize if the person stops drinking, but continued drinking can lead to liver failure, which can lead to coma and death.

If you think that you may be drinking too much, talk to your doctor or find help elsewhere. The sooner you stop drinking, the better off your liver will be.

reviewed 9/9/2019

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