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How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?

Alcohol Affects Liver

Many of us have heard the word alcohol and liver used in the same sentence, it's common knowledge that too much drinking can harm the liver, but exactly how does alcohol affect the liver? What is the biological process that takes place after you finish pounding your fifth shot in one hour? And can this process be altered for your benefit?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that roughly 15% of all U.S. alcoholics will develop liver disease at some point in their lives. [1] The link between poor liver health and excessive, chronic consumption of alcohol is definitive.

How the Liver Works

To understand how alcohol affects the liver you must first understand what role the liver plays in your body. You liver is vital to your survival. It plays a role in almost every system in your body; it’s vital to hormone and enzyme production, blood filtration, and chemical digestion. Your liver is continuously processing blood being used by the rest of your body. Think of the liver as a large purification tank for your blood. Blood enters the liver to be purified, circulates through your body, and enters your liver for purification again. Just about anything you put into your mouth and swallow interacts with your liver in some way, including alcohol.

As soon as you take a swig of alcohol it slides down your throat and into your stomach. From there, it quickly makes its way into your intestines and is absorbed into your blood. How quickly and how much alcohol is absorbed into your blood depends on many factors such as how much food is in your stomach.

Alcohol and the Liver

After the alcohol has been absorbed into your blood from your intestines it needs to be purified by your liver. Each of our livers contains an enzyme called “Alcohol Dehydrogenase” (ADH). This enzyme is responsible for breaking down alcohol into acetaldehyde (which happens to be very toxic)

Liver Metabolizing Alcohol

Eventually the acetaldehyde is broken down into acetate by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALD). Then the acetate is further metabolized in carbon dioxide and water and leaves your body.

Besides the build-up of acetaldehyde (which plays a large role in hangovers) there are two important things to consider regarding your livers breakdown of alcohol.

  • It takes your liver on average, 1 hour to break down a standard drink (1 shot or 1 beer) of alcohol. It doesn’t matter whether you drink five shots in one hour or one shot in one hour, your body can only breaks it down at the same speed. So what happens to the excess alcohol which can’t be broken down by your liver? It circulates through your body, increasing your blood alcohol content (BAC) and making you drunk. In fact, if your BAC gets to above .3, coma and death may occur.
  • Your liver must suspend its normal function while it metabolizes alcohol. Your body considers alcohol to be toxic, and will stop at nothing to flush it out of your system. Think of alcohol as black sludge being poured into your body’s purification tank. It’s so think nothing else can get processed, and no matter how much builds up, you can only process it so fast.

Types of Alcohol Induced Liver Damage

Chronic heavy drinking has been shown to damage one's liver in the following ways:

  • Liver Steatosis (Fatty Liver) occurs in 90-100% of those who drink heavily on a regular basis. [1] Your liver is responsible for metabolizing fat. When it must be constantly metabolizing alcohol fat builds up inside of your liver. Symptoms of a fatty liver include chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain.

    Luckily, damage caused by a fatty liver is reversible and can be treated. However, if the condition goes untreated and alcohol abuse continues, bigger problems can develop such as liver inflation and cirrhosis.
  • Hepatits (Liver Inflammation) occurs in 10-35% of those who regularly abuse alcohol. [1] Eventually, chronic alcohol consumption will lead to an inflammation if your liver. Symptoms of acute (one time) liver inflammation include muscle and joint aches, nausea, diarrhea, and headaches.

    What makes liver inflammation dangerous is that many patients who experience chronic (lasting) liver inflammation experience no symptoms at all. Blood tests are generally needed to diagnose liver inflammation. And if a drinker continues to drink, liver inflammation may lead to liver cirrhosis, a serious and deadly condition.
  • Liver Cirrhosis occurs in 8-20% of chronic alcohol abusers.[1] When a liver is subject to the constant stress of alcohol for many years liver cirrhosis may occur. This condition is characterized by the replacement of healthy liver tissue with scar tissue, fibrosis, and damaged tissue. Symptoms of liver cirrhosis include loss of appetite, chronic fatigue, sudden loss or gain in weight, brusing and skin discoloration.

    The 5 year survival rate for liver cirrhosis is only 23%[1] Damage caused by liver cirrhosis can’t be reversed. Short of a transplant there is currently no way to cure this condition.

If you are a heavy drinker you should be doing everything you can to minimize the damage being done to your liver. Even if you don’t quit drinking, there are many easy things you can do to reduce the damage being done.

Dihydromyricetin Reduces Liver Damage

A great deal of research has shown that taking Dihydromyricetin can protect the liver from the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. this article has more information about how it does this.

Cited Sources

Liver Transplantation for Alcoholic Liver Disease

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