Alcohol’s Impact on the Liver: What You Should Know
Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights
Alcohol consumption is directly related to several types of cancer and can lead to certain types of liver disease.
Even moderate drinking can profoundly affect liver health, so ensuring you don’t consume too much alcohol is important.
You can support your liver health by drinking less and taking a supplement like fatty15, which helps support healthy liver function.
More than 29 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder, which can lead to serious, negative health impacts. For others, the occasional use of alcohol is widely accepted for celebrations, social events, or even to help take the edge off a particularly trying day.
However, recent science suggests that even short-term alcohol use can negatively impact both, the health of our liver and our overall health. Together, we’ll explore these impacts and how we can support liver health.
The Liver at a Glance
The liver is one of the most complex organs in the body, second only to the brain. More than 500 vital functions of the liver have been identified, but some of the most important include:
- Production of albumin, a protein that is important for helping keep the fluids in the bloodstream inside your veins and transporting hormones, nutrients, and enzymes to other parts of the body.
- Filtering toxins from the blood.
- Regulating glucose levels.
- Removal of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a byproduct of cells that have reached apoptosis (or their programmed cellular death). Bilirubin is processed by the liver and removed through bile that is sent to the intestines.
- Production of bile. Bile helps break down fats and remove waste products from the body.
- Proper blood clotting.
- Creation of proteins for blood plasma.
- Storage of Iron, as well as other vital nutrients and vitamins.
- Immune Support.
- Amino acid regulation.
Healthy liver function is essential to a healthy, functioning body. Reducing your risk factors for developing liver disease can help you maintain your wellness and increase your longevity. One way to protect your liver is by understanding how alcohol affects it.
The Truth About Alcohol
The World Health Organization classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, right along with asbestos, radiation, and tobacco. Their current stance is that no amount of alcohol is safe or beneficial for our health.
That might be surprising since we’ve operated under the assumption that some alcohol, like a glass of red wine per day, is good for our cardiovascular health and even associated with a reduced risk of kidney failure. According to the experts, the potential benefits of even light to moderate alcohol consumption simply don’t outweigh the risks.
What Are the Risks of Alcohol Consumption?
Alcohol is directly linked to seven different types of cancer, including bowel cancer and breast cancer, and the amount of alcohol associated with these types of cancer is lower than you might expect. Moderate and light alcohol consumption was shown to cause a quantifiable increase in the development of certain types of cancer.
In addition, alcohol damages your liver every time you consume it. Although we’ve known for decades that alcohol affects the liver, we are now learning more about the long term effects of alcohol use on the health of our livers.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?
Most people would not consider a single glass of wine or a cold beer at the end of a long day unhealthy. Still, it’s important to understand that even minimal alcohol consumption can impact the liver's health.
The ingredient in alcohol that causes damage to our bodies is ethanol or ethyl alcohol. The liver is responsible for breaking down the alcohol we consume. During the breakdown process, several things happen.
- Ethanol is broken down into acetaldehyde, a chemical that is considered a toxin and is capable of causing DNA damage and essential proteins in the body.
- Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated in the body when it comes in contact with toxins, including alcohol. ROS damages DNA through a process known as oxidative stress. ROS are responsible for increased levels of inflammation in the body.
- Our bodies prioritize the metabolism of alcohol over the metabolism of any other nutrient. This can lead to malnutrition and essential vitamin deficiencies, especially for B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, carotenoids, and vitamin E.
Each time alcohol is consumed, liver cells die. New cells can be created, but over time, heavy drinking can significantly decrease the ability of the liver to create new cells and lead to unhealthy conditions like fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver.
The Progression of Alcohol’s Effects on the Liver
Liver disease that occurs as the result of alcohol abuse happens progressively over time and exposure to alcohol. The progression may take years, and in many cases, a person who has liver disease may not have symptoms until they are in the final stages of liver disease.
The first stage of alcoholic liver disease is known as hepatic steatosis or fatty liver disease. This is a reversible condition that involves the storage of fat in the liver.
Fat storage in the liver can happen even if you drink heavily for a single night, as in the case of binge drinking. When a person binge drinks, the liver cannot metabolize fatty acids properly, leading to a build-up of fats in the liver.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD) is the first stage of alcohol-related liver damage, but it is reversible if a person stops drinking. If you have AFLD and stop drinking alcohol for even two weeks, you can give your liver time to recover and repair.
It’s also important to note that at this stage of liver disease, you may not have any symptoms, so you won’t know you have liver disease without a blood test.
If a person with AFLD continues to drink, they will likely develop alcoholic hepatitis. This condition, caused by prolonged, excessive alcohol consumption, is characterized by inflammation of the liver, liver cell death, and scarring of the liver.
A person may not have symptoms at this stage either, but it is possible that they will notice some symptoms like:
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting blood
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
At this stage, a person is at higher risk for developing severe alcoholic hepatitis side effects like gallstones, liver cancer, and the potential to develop cirrhosis of the liver.
Alcoholic hepatitis causes chronic inflammation in the liver. The body responds to this inflammation by attempting to heal and repair the liver with scar tissue.
Healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Over time, the accumulation of scar tissue begins to negatively impact the liver’s ability to function.
When the liver contains too much scar tissue so that its functions are significantly restricted, a person develops cirrhosis of the liver. At this point, a person will likely begin to develop some of the symptoms listed above if they are not already experiencing them.
Even at this advanced stage, it’s possible to prevent further liver damage and increase life expectancy by discontinuing alcohol use. If a person with cirrhosis does not stop drinking, their chances of survival for the next five years (after diagnosis) lowers to 50%.
Continued damage to the liver leads to the final stage of liver disease, known as liver failure.
When too much scar tissue builds in the liver, liver function can be almost completely lost. This is the final stage of liver disease, known as liver failure.
During liver failure, a person will almost always have significant symptoms, like jaundice, bleeding easily, vomiting blood, swollen abdomen, fatigue, weakness, and even mental confusion.
Liver failure is a life-threatening condition that needs immediate medical attention. While it is possible to live with liver failure, a person with liver failure may need a liver transplant.
The progression of liver injury due to excessive alcohol consumption is profound, so taking care of our livers is essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
How To Measure Liver Health
Your healthcare provider can order blood tests to check your liver enzymes and determine the health of your liver. If your blood panel comes back with a reading that shows your liver could be damaged, they may order additional tests, like ultrasounds, to determine the extent of your liver damage.
Can the Liver Repair Itself?
The liver is resilient and can regenerate, but continual damage can reduce its ability to heal over time. That means the sooner you realize your liver is damaged and take action to protect your liver health, the better your liver health will be.
How To Protect Liver Health
Current guidelines suggest that adults of legal drinking age who do not drink should not start drinking for any reason. For adults who do drink, guidelines suggest limiting alcohol consumption to one standard drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Drinking alcohol in excess can cause severe damage to the liver. This damage happens progressively or in stages. Heavy drinkers may not know that they are at risk because these stages of liver damage often come with few to no side effects.
To protect your liver:
- Avoid alcohol or moderate your alcohol intake
- Eat a balanced diet
- Get plenty of exercise
- Get regular check-ups and blood work
- Consider a supplement
Supplements that support liver health can help restore proper liver function. Along with lifestyle changes, it’s a smart decision for protecting liver health. One supplement to consider is fatty15.
Fatty15 is the first and only supplement born of scientific research that has been shown to support the function and health of the liver. It has also been shown to help support cardiovascular function, metabolism, and the health of our red blood cells.
The Right Kind of Fatty for Your Liver
Fatty15 contains just one ingredient, FA15™, the pure, vegan-friendly version of an odd-chain, saturated fatty acid known as C15:0. This fatty acid was discovered by a veterinary epidemiologist who was focused on helping improve longevity in bottlenose dolphins.
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells and fatty15 works improving our cellular health. Inside our cells, fatty15 does some pretty impressive work like:
- Strengthening cell membranes. In studies, C15:0 improves cellular strength by 80%. This helps keep our cells safe and ensure they can function properly.
- Clearing damaged cells. C15:0 helps activate AMPK, molecules that help clear out damaged cells that no longer function.
- Restoring mitochondrial function. C15:0 helps increase ATP production and decrease ROS by 45%. In one peer-reviewed study, C15:0 was shown to increase ATP levels in cells by 350%.
- Restoring whole body homeostasis. By activating special receptors called PPARɑ and PPARẟ, C15:0 helps support metabolic, immune, heart, and liver health. By activating these receptors, fatty15 also helps to improve our mood and deepen our sleep.
Taking fatty15 once a day and making a few lifestyle changes can help keep your liver healthy, improve your overall wellness and support your longevity.
Make Your Nightcap a Fatty15
If you drink, do so in moderation. Consider reducing your overall alcohol intake, and swap your nightcap to a daily dose of fatty15. Fatty15 is the science-backed, vegan-friendly, sustainably-produced, award-winning C15:0 supplement that gives your cells a fighting chance as they age.
Eric Venn-Watson M.D.
Senior Scientist, Co-Founder
Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.
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