Today, an estimated 86.5% of the total U.S. population drinks at least occasionally. Alcohol is an intoxicant which is culturally and socially normalized, to the point where it’s often rarer to find someone who doesn’t drink when going out than to find people who do. At the same time, like any substance, alcohol is harmful in large amounts and poses significant stress to the liver. That’s especially true for the 25.8% of the U.S. adult population engaging in binge drinking, where you drink alcohol at a faster rate than your body can absorb, causing extra stress and damage. And, for the 28.3 million U.S. adults with a substance use disorder, stress on the organs including long-term liver damage are increasingly dangers to health and long-term wellbeing.
Alcoholic liver disease affects 4.3% of the U.S. adult population, over 60% of which are men. Understanding ALD, what causes it, and how to get help and to manage alcohol intake can help individuals to stay healthy.
Alcoholic liver disease, commonly shortened to ALD, is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol. While there are other causes of liver disease, including fatty liver, hepatitis, and cirrhosis, alcohol is one of the leading causes, resulting in some 45% of liver-disease related deaths for men aged 12-65.
In addition, there are multiple types of liver disease.
Each of these can be caused by slightly different things. For example, fatty liver disease can occur in anyone who drinks a lot – even over the short-term. Hepatitis and cirrhosis only occur in longer-term abuse, such as in the case of substance use disorders.
All three of the different types of liver disease tend to have their own symptoms. For this reason, if you’re feeling abdominal pain or other discomfort and drink a lot, it’s always important to go in for a checkup. In addition, most of these symptoms won’t develop until advanced stages of the disease. If you feel any of them, the sooner you go in for a checkup, the more likely that is to save your life.
Fatty liver disease is the hardest to diagnose and treat because it often has no discernable symptoms. For this reason, people often go until the point of developing other issues before noticing it at all. However, some patients experience weight loss, fatigue, or muscle weakness. In other cases, you may feel abdominal pain or discomfort on the right side. This happens as fat builds up around the liver, causing pressure.
Hepatitis causes jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes. When this happens, it’s critical to immediately seek out emergency care. However, many people also experience pain in the abdomen, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting as well. Unfortunately, these symptoms will not appear until alcoholic liver disease becomes critical.
Cirrhosis is difficult to identify and may be mistaken for other issues such as Chron’s disease at first. Here, people often experience portal hypertension, an enlarged spleen, kidney failure, and fluid buildup in the belly. These can cause the illusion of weight gain, intestinal bleeding, and nutritional deficiencies – all of which mimic other issues. In addition, someone with a very advanced stage of cirrhosis may act confused or lethargic. In addition, cirrhosis puts you at greatly increased risk of liver cancer.
Diagnosing and treating alcoholic liver disease normally means going in for blood tests, ultrasounds, and biopsies. It may take several tests before your liver problems are identified and the problem is isolated. However, treatment is varied and often depends on the individual.
For example, the most common and most important first step is to stop drinking alcohol. In fact, for individuals with fatty liver disease, damage may be fully reversed if you stop drinking alcohol. That often means seeking out rehab and using behavioral therapy and medication assisted programs (if your liver is able to handle them) to manage future alcohol intake. Many doctors recommend medications such as acamprosate, disulfiram, and naltrexone to help manage long-term alcohol abstinence, but these medications are hard on the liver and may not be okay for your current condition.
In addition, persons with alcoholic liver disease are recommended to change eating patterns, reducing salt intake and spreading meals out over 3-5 small meals – reducing the liver’s need to store glycogen.
In some cases, you may also receive corticosteroids or anabolic steroids to help your liver recover, but this is rare, as there’s no good evidence that hey help and the medication may cause extra stress on the liver.
Eventually, if your liver is bad enough, you may have to consider a liver transplant. However, in order to qualify, you normally have to stop drinking alcohol for 2 years first. In addition, you’ll have to make commitments to attend rehab, to go to self-help groups, and to keep yourself accountable for not drinking for the rest of your life in order to be eligible.
Cirrhosis of the liver is the stage of liver disease where the liver becomes significantly scarred. Normally, this is caused by either fibrosis or hepatitis or simply large fat buildups because of alcohol consumption. Cirrhosis is permanent and once your liver is scarred to this point, it will never recover. However, you can prevent permanent damage by quitting alcohol immediately. In fact, quitting alcohol can significantly improve your life expectancy, even if you don’t eventually qualify for a liver transplant.
Alcohol is responsible for thousands of deaths every year. In fact, in 2019, of the 85,688 liver disease deaths in adults, 43.1% involved alcohol. If you or a loved one is abusing alcohol, getting your problem under control could save your life.
While most Americans drink, it’s crucial to recognize that daily alcohol consumption is not normal or healthy, that drinking more than is recommended for your weight and gender can cause increased health risks, and that binge drinking (drinking four or more drinks over the course of about 2 hours) creates significant health risks – including increased risks of liver damage, alcoholic liver disease, and liver cancer. Getting help, treatment for substance use disorder, and long-term support in staying sober can help.
Asana Recovery offers detox, residential, and outpatient addiction treatment services at our center located in Orange County, California. Please contact us today to speak with one of our experienced addiction treatment team if you have any questions about our programs.