The liver is the largest internal organ of the body and it has a hundred different functions. One of the liver’s most important functions is to break down food and convert it into energy when the body needs it. The liver also helps the body to get rid of waste products and plays an important role in fighting infections.
Regularly drinking, defined as drinking, on four days or more per week, can increase the risk of developing liver disease and cause irreversible damage to this very important part of the body. In 2003, regular drinking was pegged at 11.1% in the Philippines with men at 13% and women at 5.9%. Teenage drinking, ages 15-19 years old, showed 47% for boys and 12% for girls. It is assumed, at the moment, these numbers have increased significantly.
Globally, alcoholic liver disease accounts for over a third of liver disease deaths, and figures show victims of liver disease are getting younger: more than 1 in 10 of deaths of people in their 40s are from liver disease, most of them is due to alcohol.
Drinking too much alcohol can damage the liver because of “oxidative stress”. When the liver tries to break down alcohol, the resulting chemical reaction can damage its cells. This damage can lead to inflammation and scarring as the liver tries to repair itself. Evidence about how much and how often one needs to drink to increase the chances of developing liver disease is not definite. But all the research shows that the more alcohol one drinks, the more likely one develops liver disease. The threshold for developing alcoholic liver disease in men is an intake of 40-80 grams/
day of alcohol for 10 years while women are at increased risk of developing similar degrees of liver injury by consuming 20-40 grams/ day. This is equivalent to 3-6 cans of beer, 4-8 glasses of wine and 3-6 drinks of hard liquor for men, and half of those for women.
Evidence also suggests that other factors may increase the risk of developing liver disease such as:
1. Gender – women develop higher levels of alcohol in the blood than men even if they have drunk the same amount of alcohol.
2. Obesity – excess weight can exacerbate many of the mechanisms of liver damage caused by excessive drinking
3. Genetics – certain genetic factors, including those affecting the liver’s handling of fat, influence the risk of a heavy drinker developing liver disease.
Alcoholic liver disease is categorized into three forms: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. The liver turns glucose into fat which it sends the body to store for use when the body needs it. Excess alcohol affects the way the liver handles fat so the liver cells get stuffed full of it. This is fatty liver, the first stage of alcoholic liver disease. This damage, as mentioned, can lead to inflammation (hepatitis) and scarring (cirrhosis) as the individuals continue to drink.
People can spend years damaging their liver and not feel any of the effects alcohol is doing to them. This is because the liver has enormous reserves so that one can damage a great part of it and the liver can still do all of its jobs.
Early symptoms of alcoholic liver disease may include:
4. abdominal discomfort
Later stage symptoms
1. jaundice (yellow skin)
2. vomiting blood
3. fatigue and weakness
4. loss of appetite
6. easy bruising
7. swelling of the ankles,
legs or abdomen
8. bleeding in the gut
9. liver cancer
When alcoholic liver disease develops, cutting out alcohol is essential to prevent death from liver failure which is when the liver stops working completely. In the most serious cases of cirrhosis, one will only be considered for a liver transplant if one does not drink alcohol for at least three to six months.
Taking a regular break from alcohol will help the liver stay healthy. Reducing the amount one drinks, 10 grams/ day for women and 20 grams/ day for men, can help reverse damage, or early stage liver disease. Once cirrhosis develops, prognosis partly depends on whether or not the person continues drinking. Those who continue to drink have a much higher risk of dying. Even for those with symptoms, stopping drinking has a beneficial effect. It is never “too late” to stop drinking, even with cirrhosis.