Impact of Alcohol on Your Liver and Health

Long-term or excessive drinking can have severe implications for a person's health, including both short- and long-term health issues. Alcohol abuse can cause substantial damage to the liver and may eventually lead to liver failure or death. Drinking also damages cognitive function, metabolism, the immune system and other body systems that contribute to a person's overall wellness. Luckily, alcohol detoxification can help. For those struggling with alcohol misuse, detoxifying your liver from alcohol can improve your physical and mental health and set you on the path to recovery.

Alcohol's Effects on the Liver

Perhaps the most damaging effect of alcohol on the body is its impact on the liver. The liver processes alcohol and other substances to remove damaging toxins from the body. However, excessive or heavy alcohol use can overwhelm the liver and prevent it from performing these essential processes that keep the body healthy and functioning.

The primary function of the liver is to aid in the metabolic process by filtering the blood that circulates through the body. As blood passes through the liver, the organ determines which nutrients to process for energy and converts these fats, proteins and sugars into usable energy. The liver also determines which nutrients to store for future use, including vitamins, minerals, iron and glucose. The liver releases these nutrients when the body needs them, such as breaking down stored sugar when a person's blood sugar is low. As part of the body's natural process of regeneration, the liver also helps break down damaged red blood cells and hemoglobin.

The second essential function of the liver is to detoxify your body. Toxins enter the body in a variety of ways, including drugs, alcohol, preservatives in processed foods, food additives, food coloring, chemicals used in agriculture and environmental toxins such as air pollution. When filtering blood, the liver removes all these toxins safely by binding them to amino acids and releasing them from the body in stool or urine. These processes are essential to keeping your body healthy and maintaining homeostasis.

Excessive or long-term alcohol use severely impacts the liver's ability to perform these essential functions. While the liver is a resilient organ and has an exceptional ability to regenerate, continued alcohol-induced liver damage can hinder its ability to recover and eventually lead to liver failure. Below are the primary ways alcohol damages the liver:

  • Production of acetaldehyde — When a person consumes alcohol, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH, metabolizes it in the liver. ADH uses oxidation to convert alcohol into acetaldehyde. In a healthy person, ADH rapidly breaks acetaldehyde into acetate, which enters the bloodstream for use in other helpful metabolic processes. However, when the liver becomes stressed by excessive alcohol consumption, it cannot process the highly toxic acetaldehyde properly, and that damages the liver cells.
  • Creation of free radicals — Free radicals also get produced when the liver processes alcohol. Protective processes and natural antioxidants in the body typically neutralize these damaging molecules. However, excessive free radical production, such as what occurs when the liver attempts to process large amounts of alcohol, the body cannot keep up. Free radicals that do not get neutralized destroy cell membranes and organelles and can even cause the cells to die.
  • A decrease in levels of naturally occurring antioxidants — Long-term alcohol consumption decreases the levels of antioxidants that exist naturally in the body. Specifically, alcohol interferes with the transportation of the antioxidant glutathione into the mitochondria of cells in the liver. Mitochondria rely on glutathione to protect against free radicals that get produced in natural processes, including when the body processes toxins. Because the mitochondria cannot produce glutathione themselves, but rely on the transport of glutathione from the cytoplasm, the interference of alcohol results in a glutathione deficiency in the mitochondria. These lowered antioxidant levels allow free radicals to do even more damage to the mitochondria and increase the liver's susceptibility to damage from alcohol consumption.

How Liver Damage Progresses Over Time

Long-term alcohol use or abuse can lead to the development of liver disease, which typically begins as fatty liver disease. According to the American Liver Foundation90 to 100 percent of heavy drinkers have fatty liver disease to some degree. If alcohol use continues, liver function and condition will continue to worsen, leading to alcoholic hepatitis and eventually cirrhosis of the liver. While most cases of liver disease progress in this order, heavy drinkers can sometimes develop cirrhosis without first developing alcoholic hepatitis. In other instances, alcoholic hepatitis can progress so rapidly that it becomes fatal before cirrhosis develops. Below are the three stages of alcohol-related liver disease.

1. Fatty Liver Disease

The first stage of liver disease involves fat accumulation inside of the liver cells caused by heavy drinking. Fatty liver disease can also develop in non-alcoholics after a single period of heavy drinking. This fat buildup may cause some abdominal discomfort, but often exhibits no noticeable symptoms. If a person stops drinking, fatty liver disease typically goes away without additional treatment. If a person continues to consume alcohol, this fatty buildup can cause inflammation and scarring that results in alcoholic hepatitis.

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis

The second stage of liver disease occurs when fatty buildup leads to liver inflammation and destruction of liver tissue. In more severe cases, fibrosis occurs and replaces healthy liver tissue with scar tissue. Alcoholic hepatitis develops in up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers and can cause fever, nausea, vomiting, dark urine, abdominal pain and jaundice. Alcoholic hepatitis can be fatal, especially in cases of rapid onset following binge drinking. People can sometimes reverse more mild cases of alcoholic hepatitis with alcohol detoxification, abstinence from alcohol and developing a healthy lifestyle.

3. Cirrhosis of the Liver

The third and final stage of liver disease occurs when fibrosis progresses to the extent that scar tissue takes over most of the liver tissue. This scar tissue prevents blood from filtering through the liver properly, meaning the liver can no longer detoxify the body and perform its other functions. The severe impairment of a damaged alcoholic liver also impacts the role of other essential organs, including the brain and kidneys. Symptoms of cirrhosis include:

  • Jaundice
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dark urine
  • High blood pressure in the liver
  • Bleeding from veins in the esophagus
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
  • Confusion and behavioral changes
  • Enlarged spleen

Alcoholic cirrhosis often becomes fatal due to complications like liver failure, kidney failure, liver cancer, brain disorders or coma. Cirrhosis of the liver is not reversible, but a person with the disease may slow its progression if they stop drinking. In more advanced cases, alcoholic cirrhosis often requires a liver transplant. About 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis of the liver after drinking for many years. Alcoholic cirrhosis makes up about 20 to 25 percent of cases of liver cirrhosis, and is the second leading cause of liver cirrhosis following hepatitis C virus infection.

How Alcohol Impacts Overall Health

While liver disease is the most notorious health impact of drinking, alcohol use also has negative consequences on other parts of the body and a person's overall health. Below are some damaging effects that can occur from excessive or heavy drinking:

  • Confusion or foggy thinking
  • Impairment of motor coordination
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Weakened immune system and increased risk of disease
  • Disruption of digestive processes causing malnutrition and weight loss
  • Heart problems, including cardiomyopathy and arrhythmias
  • Pancreatitis
  • Increased risk of developing cancer

How Alcohol Detox Can Help Your Liver

Detoxifying your body from alcohol is the first and most essential step for reversing liver disease and improving your overall health. If you have received a diagnosis of fatty liver disease or alcoholic hepatitis, quitting drinking is the only way to reverse your liver damage and prevent the disease from advancing. Reducing alcohol intake is not enough, as even small amounts of alcohol can contribute to liver scarring and cause stress on the liver. Total alcohol detoxification allows your liver to process all the alcohol that remains in your system. It releases toxins from your body and allows your liver to function effectively again.

When a person stops drinking, the beneficial alcohol detoxification effects on the liver begin immediately. Because the liver is in a constant state of regeneration, it will start to heal itself and repair damaged tissue. Fatty buildup in the liver will decrease over time, and the detoxified liver will be better able to filter toxins from the body. In people with fatty liver disease, their liver may be able to heal entirely after alcohol detoxification. However, those with alcohol-related fibrosis or cirrhosis may still have liver scarring to some degree. For this reason, heavy drinkers should begin alcohol detoxification as early as possible to stop the progression of liver disease. Depending on the specific client and their history of alcohol use, it may take up to a few weeks to experience the full benefits of a detoxified liver.

For those with advanced alcoholic cirrhosis, the only treatment for their liver disease may be a liver transplant. However, liver detoxification is still an essential first step to recovery, as it can halt the progression of the disease. Also, someone typically will not qualify for a liver transplant until they have completed alcohol detoxification and abstained from alcohol for an extended period. Alcohol detoxification is the first step to recovering a healthy body and life.

Benefits of Alcohol Detoxification

After alcohol detoxification, clients will see many positive effects on their body and enjoy overall better health. Ridding your body of toxins will increase your energy level and allow your liver to function properly. Here are some other liver detoxification benefits:

  • Increased energy levels
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Improved metabolism and ability to lose body fat
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Faster immune response
  • Improved absorption of vitamins and minerals
  • Reduced risk of stroke and heart attack
  • Reduced risk of cancer

Safe Alcohol Detoxification With Diamond House Detox

The sooner a heavy drinker chooses to detoxify their body, the better chance they have of a full recovery. If someone takes the right steps immediately, they can halt and reverse their liver disease before it is too late. However, alcohol detoxification can be hazardous or even life-threatening for those with a long history of alcohol use or dependence. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to detox from and can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. If a person stops consuming alcohol entirely, these symptoms can occur rapidly and may lead to fatal consequences. Serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme confusion
  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Severe craving for alcohol
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Cardiac events

Because the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, many doctors recommend choosing an alcohol detoxification program like Diamond House Detox. Detoxing in a safe environment with professional monitoring ensures the client's safety throughout the detoxification process. Medical professionals can quickly treat severe withdrawal symptoms and keep the client in a stable condition.

At Diamond House Detox, our liver detoxification process begins with an assessment of the client's condition, including the severity of their addiction, their medical status and any psychiatric needs they may have. This preliminary assessment allows our expert staff to create an individualized treatment plan and anticipate the severity of withdrawal symptoms the client may experience.

During detoxification, we monitor our clients 24/7, and our compassionate staff supports them. For most clients, the most severe withdrawal symptoms will occur in the first few days after their last drink, and continue for four or five days. How long the client has struggled with alcohol abuse will also impact how long their detoxification process takes.

After a client has completed their alcohol detoxification with Diamond House Detox, we encourage them to continue further inpatient or outpatient treatment to suit their needs. For full recovery from alcohol addiction, people may seek counseling, support groups or therapy. Clients should also practice a healthy lifestyle that improves their liver function and overall health. That can include lifestyle changes such as choosing a healthy diet that is low in sugar and saturated fats, exercising, reducing consumption of processed foods and quitting smoking. By following this treatment plan, recovering addicts can begin a healthy, happy and alcohol-free life.

Contact Diamond House Detox for Same-Day Admittance

If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, consider Diamond House Detox as one of Northern California's finest drug and alcohol treatment centers. Our alcohol detoxification center offers a holistic approach to alcohol addiction that takes into account each client's individual needs and any mental health issues that may contribute to their condition. Diamond House Detox provides private rooms for each client, as well as offering group therapy and support meetings. Because each treatment facility at Diamond House Detox has a maximum of six guests, each client receives personal care and support to achieve their recovery goals. If you are ready to take the next step in your recovery from alcohol dependence or addiction, contact Diamond House Detox today.

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on October 31st, 2018.

Sources: