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Can Alcohol Cause Liver Disease?

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Chronic or excessive alcohol use can lead to various liver diseases, including liver steatosis, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol misuse, it is critical to understand the dangers and risks associated with problematic drinking and seek professional help promptly. At Guardian Recovery, we offer comprehensive behavioral health services that address the physical and psychological aspects of each individual’s mental and physical wellness. Our experienced mental and medical professionals use their expertise to develop personalized treatment plans to help individuals prevent liver disease. Contact us today to start your journey toward a healthier and happier life.

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Symptoms, Causes, & Progression of Alcohol-Induced Hepatitis 

Heavy alcohol consumption can result in alcohol-induced hepatitis, a serious condition that could progress rapidly and eventually cause liver failure. It is characterized by inflammation and is a sign of tissue injury or infection. The acute form can occur as a temporary response to excessive drinking, but if it becomes chronic, it can cause permanent liver damage.

Symptoms of early or mild alcohol-induced hepatitis include tenderness or pain in the upper right abdomen, a visibly swollen liver, abdominal swelling, loss of appetite, and nausea. If hepatitis becomes severe, other symptoms can develop, including fever, rapid heart rate, jaundice, confusion, and fatigue. Individuals may also experience easy bleeding and bruising, referred to as thrombocytopenia. (1)

The Role of Alcohol in Liver Damage

Alcohol use inflicts damage to the liver through multiple processes that can lead to inflammation, cell injury, and the formation of liver diseases. These include oxidative stress, fat accumulation, and other mechanisms.

Ways Alcohol Causes Liver Damage Include:

  • Oxidative Stress—When alcohol is metabolized in the liver, it produces highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. These molecules cause oxidative stress, leading to damage to liver cells and impairing their normal function. Over time, this can contribute to inflammation and the development of liver diseases.
  • Fat Accumulation—When alcohol is consumed, the liver prioritizes the metabolism of alcohol over other digestive processes. This leads to the accumulation of fats in the liver, resulting in a condition called alcohol-induced fatty liver disease (AFLD). 
  • Inflammation—Alcohol use triggers an inflammatory response in the liver, and chronic inflammation can damage liver cells and contribute to the development of liver diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
  • Hepatotoxicity—Alcohol and its byproducts can interfere with cell structures and functions, leading to cell injury and death. This is called hepatotoxicity and contributes to liver damage and the progression of liver diseases. (2)
  • Impaired Protein Synthesis—Excessive alcohol use can disrupt the formation of important proteins in the liver, leading to insufficient levels of proteins or abnormalities. This can adversely impact various liver functions, including blood clotting and immunity.

Impaired Liver Regeneration—Heavy alcohol use can disrupt the liver’s balance of cell growth and death, leading to diminished liver regeneration and an increased risk of developing permanent liver damage.

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Alcohol’s Impact on Liver Fat Accumulation & Fatty Liver Disease

According to the National Library of Medicine, alcohol use “promotes accumulation of fat in the liver mainly by substitution of ethanol for fatty acids as the major hepatic fuel. (3) The degree of lipid accumulation depends on the supply of dietary fat.”  To explain further, the breakdown of alcohol takes precedence over other metabolic processes, including fat metabolism. As a result, the liver becomes less efficient at breaking down and eliminating fatty acids, resulting in an increased accumulation of fat in liver cells and the development of alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Excessive alcohol use can also cause imbalances in the gut microbiome, a collection of microorganisms inhabiting the digestive tract. This has been linked to the development of fatty liver disease through intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut syndrome.” (4) This leads to the release of bacterial products that cause damage to the liver and promote fat accumulation.

Exploring the Connection Between Alcohol & Liver Inflammation

Alcohol consumption, especially when excessive or chronic, is closely associated with liver inflammation. In addition to a leaky gut and oxidative stress, this connection can also be attributed to the activation of the immune system. As alcohol is metabolized, toxic byproducts (e.g., the enzyme acetaldehyde) are generated that can activate immune cells, ultimately leading to liver inflammation. (5)

Alcohol-Induced Liver Fibrosis & Scar Tissue Formation

Alcohol activates specialized cells responsible for producing collagen and other constituents of scar tissue in the liver. When these cells are activated, they produce collagen, the main component of scar tissue. An excess accumulation of scar tissue heralds the process of liver fibrosis. The presence of this condition indicates that inflammation in the liver is ongoing, and it is integral to the development of advanced liver diseases like alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.

Chronic Liver Damage & Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis is a potential consequence of chronic, heavy alcohol consumption. This is an advanced stage of liver disease characterized by extensive fibrosis, or scarring, in the liver. As alcohol misuse causes inflammation and injury to the liver, it responds by attempting to heal itself by producing excess collagen. This leads to scar tissue formation, which eventually replaces healthy liver tissue, impairs liver function, and develops into cirrhosis. This condition typically develops over a period of years or decades of heavy alcohol use. 

Alcohol-induced cirrhosis significantly compromises the liver’s ability to perform vital functions, such as eliminating toxins, producing bile, processing and storing nutrients, and regulating metabolism. As cirrhosis progresses, a wide range of complications throughout the body can occur.

Initially, cirrhosis symptoms may be mild and unremarkable, such as fatigue, weight loss, and stomach discomfort. As the disease advances, however, symptoms can become more serious and include confusion, jaundice, ascites, swelling, susceptibility to bruising and bleeding, and liver complications such as portal hypertension.

Alcoholic Liver Cancer & Increased Risk from Alcohol Consumption

Heavy drinkers face a significant risk of developing alcohol-induced liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). In addition to cirrhosis, inflammation, and oxidative stress, there are several other factors that can contribute to its development.

Risks of Liver Cancer Caused by Alcohol Use Include:

  • Acetaldehyde—This is a toxic byproduct produced when alcohol is broken down in the body, called acetaldehyde. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers acetaldehyde a carcinogen because it impairs cellular function and increases the likelihood of cancer. (6) 
  • Impaired Immune Response—Alcohol misuse weakens the immune system and impairs its ability to eliminate cancer cells, thereby allowing them to flourish and potentially develop into tumors.
  • Combined Effects With Other Factors—Alcohol misuse can interact with other liver cancer risk factors, such as hepatitis B and C, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). (7)

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If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism or other behavioral health issues, we urge you to contact us today. You can speak to an experienced Treatment Advisor who can provide you with a free, no-obligation health insurance benefits check. Our team of health professionals can help you or your loved one navigate the complexities of treatment and ensure you get the effective treatment you need. Reach out to Guardian Recovery to find out more about our innovative treatment programs and evidence-based services.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/14430-thrombocytopenia (2)https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/hepatotoxicity (3)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/87483/# (4)https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22724-leaky-gut-syndrome (5)https://sites.duke.edu/apep/module-1-gender-matters/content/content-how-is-alcohol-eliminated-from-the-body/ (6)https://publications.iarc.fr/Book-And-Report-Series/Iarc-Monographs-Supplements/Overall-Evaluations-Of-Carcinogenicity-An-Updating-Of-IARC-Monographs-Volumes-1%E2%80%9342-1987 (7)https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/nonalcoholic-fatty-liver-disease

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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