The truth is, alcohol and your liver don’t mix. For some people, consuming as little as one glass of wine or beer a day can cause liver problems to develop.
How does alcohol affect your liver?
We are often told that too much alcohol is bad for us, but do you really know why? Have you ever wondered how alcohol affects your liver when sipping your favorite cocktail or schooner of beer? Here’s a quick rundown:
Your liver is a robust organ and can usually cope with drinking a small amount of alcohol. However the liver can only handle a certain amount of alcohol at any given time, so if you drink more than the liver can deal with by drinking too quickly, or drinking too much, your liver cells struggle to process it.
When alcohol reaches the liver, it produces a toxic enzyme called acetaldehyde which can damage liver cells and cause permanent scarring, as well as harm to the brain and stomach lining. But that’s not all...
Your liver also requires water to do its job effectively. When alcohol enters the body it acts as a diuretic and as such dehydrates you and forces the liver to find water from other sources. The severe dehydration is part of the reason why, after a big night of drinking you can wake up nursing a whopping headache.
Regular and heavy drinking over time can strain or upset the way alcohol is metabolised within the body, which can lead to alcoholic liver disease.
There are alcohol guidelines in place for alcohol consumption which have been developed by the National Health and Medical Council in Australia. Using the most up-to-date scientific research and evidence, the guidelines aim to help you make informed choices and help reduce the risk of alcohol-related accidents, injuries, disease and death.
For both men and women, the guidelines recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce your risk of harm from alcohol-related disease, or injury over a lifetime.
Drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion. Drinking more than four standard drinks on any one occasion is regarded as binge drinking.
Keep in mind that alcohol can have varying effects on you depending on; age, gender, mental health, drug use and medical conditions, so balance a glass of your preferred alcoholic beverage with some thought about the associated risks.
Alcohol and fatty liver
Too much fat can build up in your liver if you drink more than the liver can handle. This can cause inflammation and fatty liver disease. You can also develop fatty liver disease without drinking alcohol. A poor diet, being an unhealthy weight, lack of exercise, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease can put you at risk. If you are overweight and drink too much, it increases the chance of damaging your liver. In Australia, 1 in 10 Australians are living with fatty liver disease, making it one of the most common causes of liver problems.
Alcoholic hepatitis is caused by inflammation of the liver associated with long term, excessive drinking. The condition causes the liver to become swollen and tender. If you have fatty liver and continue to drink, you are dramatically increasing your chances of developing alcoholic hepatitis; this condition can develop after many years of heavy drinking. If you continue to drink heavily, alcoholic hepatitis will most likely persist and develop into cirrhosis. If heavy alcohol use is reduced and kept within recommended limits, alcoholic hepatitis usually reduces slowly over weeks to months, but often residual cirrhosis will remain.
Cirrhosis occurs when the liver cells are damaged and replaced by scar tissue because of chronic inflammation. The inflammation can develop because of chronic viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, unsafe consumption of alcohol, some drugs and harmful substances. The scar tissue affects the flow of blood and other fluids through the liver. Without a good flow, together with a reduction in total liver cells, the liver cannot function properly and it becomes lumpy and hard. If you continue to drink at this stage you will accelerate damage to your liver and rapidly increase your chances of liver cancer as well as death.
Alcohol and viral hepatitis
There are varying opinions on viral hepatitis and alcohol. Most recommendations suggest cutting out drinking completely or at least keeping alcohol intake to a minimum. Keep in mind however, that everyone’s body is different and alcohol may cause abdominal pain and fatigue the day after drinking in some people. It is important to ‘listen to your liver’, especially if you have liver scarring or liver cancer, as then it’s best not to drink any alcohol at all.
If you are currently receiving treatment for hepatitis B or C, or are thinking about treatment, drinking alcohol can lower the effectiveness of treatment. The less alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to respond to treatment. For more information please see the Australian Drug and Information Network website and/or contact the Hepatitis Helpline on 1300 437 222 (1300 HEP ABC).
Love your liver - drink in moderation
Here are our top tips to help you limit your alcohol intake:
- Switch to low-alcohol or alternate an alcohol-free drink with an alcoholic one
- Mix your favourite wine with plain mineral water
- Mix beer or stout with lemonade
- Avoid situations where there is peer pressure to drink in rounds
If you’re having difficulty cutting back, talk to your doctor about getting professional help to reduce your alcohol intake. Be sure to read up about other common toxins that can damage your liver too.