Pounding beers and sucking down tequila shots with your friends can be fun as all get out. However, researchers say such activity can inflame the liver and produce fatty tissues in the organ — early indicators of alcohol-related liver disease. And all it takes is a single occasion.
Doing it on multiple occasions can do irreparable harm to your body, but especially the liver, the organ charged with breaking down most of the alcohol you consume.
University of California San Francisco researchers discovered that 21 binge drinking sessions in mice were enough to produce symptoms of early-stage liver disease. These findings fly in the face of the perception that only long-term, heavy drinking leads to alcohol-induced liver disease.
“We sometimes think of alcoholic liver damage as occurring after years of heavy drinking. However, we found that even a short period of what in humans would be considered excessive drinking resulted in liver dysfunction,” stated Frederic “Woody” Hopf, Ph.D., the 2017 study’s senior researcher.
When misused, alcohol possesses the ability to damage virtually every system in the body, from the digestive and immune systems to the circulatory and reproductive systems.
Why Alcohol is so Dangerous
Though legal, alcohol remains one of the most dangerous substances, you can consume. The harm it can cause in the body is unparalleled. Like asbestos, plutonium, and processed meat, alcohol is a known carcinogen, capable or producing cancer in living tissue. So it follows that there is also a strong correlation between alcohol use and multiple cancers, like head and neck, rectal, esophageal, and breast cancers.
According to Medical News Today, chronic heavy drinking can bring about a number of health risks, including profound liver damage. Those risks include:
- Ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues
- Immune system dysfunction
- Brain damage
- Heart disease
- Alcohol-induced injuries and death
- Liver disease
What Alcohol Does to the Liver
The liver, which is about the size of a football, is the largest solid organ in the body. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the liver is responsible for the following functions:
- Makes blood proteins that help clotting, transporting oxygen, and aid the immune system.
- Stores excess nutrients and returns some of those nutrients to the bloodstream.
- Manufactures bile, which helps to digest food.
- Helps the body store sugar (glucose) in the form of glycoge.
- Rids the body of harmful substances in the bloodstream, including drugs and alcohol.
- Breaks down saturated fat and produces cholesterol.
Alcohol and Cirrhosis of the Liver
After the hepatitis C virus, alcohol consumption is the second-most common cause of cirrhosis of the liver, according to the American Liver Foundation. However, there has been a spike in deaths from liver disease as the result of alcohol consumption. A 2018 study revealed a 65 percent spike in deaths from cirrhosis from 1999 to 2016.
About 90 percent of alcohol is metabolized by the liver, which is the organ that suffers the most damage from abuse. When alcohol is metabolized, it turns into a toxic and carcinogenic substance known as acetaldehyde.
Excessive alcohol consumption damages the liver. In response, the organ will attempt to repair itself with hard scar tissue that replaces living tissue, which is characteristic of cirrhosis. As cirrhosis progresses, more scar tissue forms, ultimately interrupting the liver’s normal functions.
What’s more, cirrhosis exhibits no signs or symptoms, until the organ damage becomes extensive. According to the Mayo Clinic, cirrhosis has symptoms and effects that include:
- Swelling in your legs, feet or ankles (edema)
- Yellow discoloration in the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Fluid accumulation in your abdomen
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech
- Easily bleeding or bruising
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Itchy skin
- Spiderlike blood vessels on your skin
- Redness in the palms of the hands
- For women, absent or loss of periods not related to menopause
- For men, loss of sex drive, breast enlargement (gynecomastia) or testicular atrophy
Normal Versus Heavy Alcohol Use
When consumed at moderate levels, alcohol is known to impart a variety of benefits, including reducing the risk of stroke.
One drink daily for women and two for men is considered moderate alcohol consumption. The recommended amount of alcohol intake is based on the measure of a standard drink, which is considered 14 grams or 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.
The Following Are Examples Of One Standard Drink:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor
When someone engages in heavy alcohol consumption, they will drink enough to the point where their blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) rises to 0.08 or more.
When a man has five or more drinks in the space of two hours and a woman has four or more in the same amount of time that is considered binge drinking.
If a man has 15 or more drinks and a woman enjoys eight or more, that is considered heavy alcohol use.
If someone engages in heavy consumption, then an alcohol use disorder (AUD) may be present. But there are established sets of criteria available to determine whether you have a problem with alcohol.
When Alcohol Use Disorder (Aud) is Present
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), has established criteria that determine whether a patient has an AUD.
If you believe AUD is present in the life of you or a loved one, they will need to meet at least two of the 11 criteria over 12 months. AUD can range from mild, moderate, or severe, but that all depends on the number of criteria you meet.
In the past year, have you or your loved one:
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the after-effects?
- Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?
The Trouble With Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol is especially dangerous for individuals going through withdrawal because the symptoms it produces are life-threatening, which often result from years of heavy drinking, usually 10 or more. The life-threatening symptoms associated with a severe form of alcohol withdrawal is referred to as delirium tremens (DTs), which can produce the following:
- Severe confusion
The seizures one suffers in this state can be deadly if that person does not receive the necessary medical attention. Other common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be painful and uncomfortable. They include psychological and physical symptoms, such as:
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Mood swings
- Not thinking clearly
- Jumpiness or shakiness
- Tremor of the hands or other body parts
- Rapid heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Clammy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Dilated pupils
How Professional Treatment Can Help You
The health conditions and effects of alcohol require a professional treatment program that offers the full continuum of care. Without the medical supervision provided through a reputable program, attempting to quit drinking on your own can be a dangerous proposition where you can incur many potential complications.
A team of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel will perform medical detoxification, which removes the alcohol and other toxins from your body while treating the withdrawal symptoms that manifest. They will assess your physical and mental health and develop the best treatment program going forward.
For problems with alcohol, it is highly recommended that you consider residential treatment, which provides you a comprehensive set of therapy and counseling that treats the mental and emotional aspect of addiction. A residential program can offer evidence-based treatment services that have been proven to address the psychological aspects of alcohol addiction. Those treatment approaches include:
- Behavioral therapy
- Group therapy
- Motivational interviewing (MI)
- Family therapy
- Life skills training
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends a stay of 90 days or more to maximize the effectiveness of a residential treatment program.
For people in recovery, going from residential treatment to the normal world can be intimidating. You may feel unprepared to resume a regular social role fully. An outpatient program can be that crucial bridge, providing ongoing therapy and life skills training to help you fully transition back into society as a newly sober individual.
Once you complete treatment, you can get connected to a recovery community, which can provide ongoing support and relapse prevention training.