How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?

Ethanol, a psychoactive drug, is found in most alcoholic beverages. It is this drug that causes harm to the human body, especially the liver. But how badly does alcohol affect the liver?
WellnessKeen Staff
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
Not many people know that small amounts of alcohol is actually good for the body. In moderation, alcohol can help prevent heart diseases and strokes. But excess alcohol consumption can take a huge toll on the liver. To prevent this from happening, an individual should know where to draw the line.
As mentioned before, alcoholic drinks contain ethanol. Ethanol is a by-product of the alcohol fermentation or distillation procedure. Ethanol acts as a psychoactive drug in the human body and as a depressant. Short-term effects aside, ethanol is more lethal when the body starts needing regular dosages. It causes various illnesses to different parts of the human body, right from the brain to the liver. The adverse effects of alcohol on the human body vary, based on quantity consumed. The broad array of alcohol-based illnesses include dementia, cancer, strokes, and various liver disorders.
Alcohol and the Liver
The liver is the largest solid organ in the human body. In relation to alcohol, there are three different conditions that affect the liver - fatty liver, hepatitis, and liver cirrhosis. An individual can first get affected by fatty liver, then advance towards hepatitis, and finally suffer from liver cirrhosis.
Fatty Liver
Fatty liver is a condition wherein the fats accumulate in the cells. It has a lot to do with diabetes and obesity. Simply put, if you give the liver too much fat to process, eventually, it won't be able to take the strain and will stop functioning in a proper manner. If the alcohol is consumed in small proportions or better still, abstained from, fatty liver can be cured. But if the consumption of alcohol is constant, this disease can prove to be fatal.
Alcohol hepatitis is a more generic condition which affects the efficiency of the liver. The first warnings occur during metabolism. While your body is trying to break down the alcohol code, more toxic compounds such as acetaldehyde arise, that damage the liver cells and hinder their functioning. To stop the spread of this toxic substance, the body wages a war on them, causing inflammation. To cure the damage, the body releases cytokines beyond reasonable limits. Cytokines are single-handedly responsible for alcohol hepatitis and tissue scarring.
Although this is a rare disease, anyone who drinks can acquire it (whether moderately or binging on alcohol once in a while). This is also a curable disease if the consumption of liquor is stopped. If the drinking still continues, hepatitis can further result in liver cirrhosis. About 50 percent of such severe cases result in death. The causes of alcoholic hepatitis has been reasoned out, but an effective cure still remains to be discovered. A liver transplant, however, may be one way out of this condition.
The whole orbit of liver-based maladies caused by alcohol can be clubbed into one term - liver cirrhosis. Permanently damaged cells of the liver leads to cirrhosis. Liver cirrhosis can be very serious and fatal. Once the liver cells die, the damage is irreparable. A scar tissue forms when the cells die. As this scar tissue starts to build up, it becomes difficult for the blood to flow through the liver. One of the main functions of the liver is to filter and clean blood. But due to this scar tissue build-up, this function cannot be performed by the liver in a proper manner. The blood hence remains unfiltered. This gives rise to poisonous blood and waste in the body. Women hold a higher risk of liver cirrhosis than men do. Liver cirrhosis may show no signs or symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.
To understand the severity of these diseases, let us take a look at what all alcohol can put you through by damaging your liver. Here are a few symptoms of fatty liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Excessive build-up of fatty acids in the liver can be a severe case of fatty liver. The symptoms are:
pain in the abdomen
loss of appetite and weakness
Hepatitis will give you symptoms like:
visible red blood vessels on your skin
jaundice (pale/yellow eyes and skin)
pain in the abdomen
nausea and low appetite
Cirrhosis has two stages, the early stage and the later one. The symptoms differ in both stages.
In the former stage, you will face symptoms like:
loss of appetite
loss in weight
itchy skin
red blotchy palms
In the latter stage, you would have symptoms such as:
further weight loss
vomiting of blood
pain in the shoulder
bleeding nose or gums
very dark or pale stools
dark yellow urine
loss of hair
fluid build-up in ankles, legs and abdomen, which makes you feel bloated and look pregnant
muscle pain
loss of libido (sexual desire)
fever with shivering attacks
Save Yourself
The way out of these maladies is simple to say, but difficult to implement. The fact that an individual has contracted any of these diseases is sufficient proof that his/her life's quota for alcohol consumption is over. If he continues to ignore the magnanimity of a malfunctioning liver, he'll be hit by a worse condition. Liver cirrhosis is a permanent disability. It affects more than just digestion. Such a liver is no longer able to make new healthy tissues, and instead makes scar tissues, as the liver begins to harden. The scar tissues are nowhere as efficient as normal tissues, and can barely filter blood. This causes a cycle degeneration, and the individual needs to be really lucky to survive cirrhosis.
However one may justify the need to drink, drinking has no valid reason nor is it a solution to any problem. Alcohol is a depressant, hence, it will sink a person deeper into depression, rather than getting him out of it. If an individual has too many problems, alcohol won't take them away, in fact, it will add a few more health problems to the existing ones. The range is from near-fatal to fatal. Effects of alcohol, circle around a person's system for a while, asking him to mend his habits, before exercising their vice-like grip of death. As said before, it's a degeneration cycle that goes from bad to worse. The only way out is moderation. Regulate the consumption of alcohol. If an individual has already contracted one of the above conditions, it is better to stop consuming alcohol altogether.
The liver helps in purifying the blood and throwing the poisonous waste, drugs, and alcohol out of our system. It also helps with blood clot issues, transportation of oxygen, and in the functioning of the immune system. It helps the body store glucose (sugar) in the form of glycogen. It helps in the digestion of food, as it produces bile. It also helps in breaking down fat and cholesterol. The liver stores nutrients and returns them to the bloodstream. If one's liver gets damaged, the body will not be able to function well.
Disclaimer: This article is solely for informative purposes, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.