At SUN Behavioral Kentucky, we know there are people in our community who are silently managing an alcohol use disorder. We also know that those who have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol aren’t spending all of their time “partying” or “forgetting their responsibilities” – they’re worrying. Thinking about health, especially the liver, can be a scary thing for people regularly ingesting alcohol – especially when it’s difficult to stop. We also know that fear can be counterintuitive to healing and recovery.
Around 20% of all heavy drinkers develop some form of liver disease in their lifetime. Those who binge drink each day are at an even higher risk. It’s natural to be concerned about how alcohol use will affect your liver (or the liver of someone you love). It’s also important to understand that many forms of liver disease are reversible with treatment. Let’s talk about the facts surrounding alcohol’s link to the liver, including the possible signs of liver damage from drinking.
There’s no question that heavy and prolonged alcohol use can lead to health complications. Sometimes those complications are minor and reversible, and other times they’re permanent or fatal. There are many factors influencing this, including someone’s genetics, how much they drink, how often they drink, and even what kind of alcohol they drink. Let’s talk about how alcohol impacts the body.
The body has a complex and predictable process for the elimination of alcohol. First, ethanol (alcohol) is converted into acetaldehyde by cytosolic alcohol dehydrogenase. Acetaldehyde is still toxic at this point, so an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase converts acetaldehyde into acetate. At this point, the body is able to safely metabolize alcohol and it’s eliminated.
It doesn’t always work as planned, however, especially if someone has a history of heavy alcohol consumption. Every time someone drinks, liver cells die. The liver heals itself when someone isn’t drinking; it can create new, healthy cells. But if there is no break from drinking, and the liver doesn’t have time to heal, more and more cells die. This can create scarring in the liver, which causes it to malfunction. If the liver isn’t functioning properly, acetaldehyde can accumulate, causing a buildup of toxins. These toxins play a role in certain cancers, liver problems, and even issues in the brain.
Alcoholic liver disease is typically the first stage of liver malfunction caused by alcohol. During this stage, the liver accumulates fat cells that are detected in a liver function test. This stage often requires a change in eating habits along with an increase in exercise. A lifestyle change can cure alcoholic fatty liver disease because, at this point, the liver is still functioning. There are often no signs/physical indicators of this disease and it’s usually only caught by blood tests.
Alcoholic hepatitis is when the liver becomes inflamed due to alcohol use. It is almost always present in those who have been drinking regularly and heavily for prolonged periods. This is another sign that the liver is being impacted by alcohol use, and patients diagnosed with this are told to stop drinking alcohol completely. Additionally, this stage of liver malfunction is an indicator that by continuing to drink, the patient is at risk for fibrosis and cirrhosis. Not everyone is symptomatic with alcoholic hepatitis, but some common things to look out for include:
Fibrosis happens when the liver starts to scar and isn’t filtering out toxins or functioning the way it should. Fibrosis can be reversed, but it takes much longer than reversing the effects of fatty liver. With complete cessation of alcohol and healthy lifestyle changes, fibrosis can begin to heal within 5-10 years.
Cirrhosis is considered late-stage liver disease. It’s at this point that the liver has become permanently damaged. Liver tissue has been replaced with scar tissue, so the liver doesn’t work the way it should. Cirrhosis can be managed, but the mortality rates for those diagnosed are high. Some require a liver transplant when diagnosed, but transplants are difficult to get for those living with alcohol use disorder – especially if they haven’t stopped drinking.
While damage to the liver is usually linked to long-term alcohol misuse, that isn’t always the case. Liver damage can occur if someone has as little as 2-3 drinks daily. Additionally, binge drinking (5 or more drinks in one sitting) can cause both an overdose and liver damage. On the flip side, not everyone with alcohol use disorder will experience things like hepatitis or cirrhosis.
Studies show that those who consume up to 6-7 drinks per day over a period of 10 years are almost 100% guaranteed to develop liver disease. In other words, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol can (and likely will) cause liver damage. Even those who consume 3-4 drinks daily have an increased risk for disease.
Liver damage doesn’t always come with symptoms. Some people may notice things like fatigue, yellowing of the eyes, or nausea, but for the most part, liver function tests are the only way to detect damage to the liver. It’s also important to note that aside from yellow eyes or skin, the symptoms of liver damage can be mistaken for other medical issues (and vice versa). If you or someone you love suspects liver damage, talk to your primary care provider about running some liver function tests.
If you’re managing an alcohol use disorder and you don’t know how you’ll ever stop, going to the doctor can be daunting. Remember that many forms of liver disease can be reversed with proper care, but they can’t be reversed unless you stop drinking. Stopping alcohol use is never easy, especially if it’s something you’ve been doing for a long time, but it’s possible. It’s also possible to find treatment if you have kids and don’t want to leave them, a job you can’t step away from, or a marriage you can’t bear to take a break from. Treatment can be worked around your life and your schedule.
Alcohol use disorder can affect your life physically and mentally. If you’ve been drinking for a long time with no end in sight, liver disease is almost guaranteed. But it doesn’t need to be permanent, and you don’t need to live with that fear forever. At SUN Behavioral Health Kentucky, we offer programs to help you rediscover yourself and find lasting recovery.
This program typically lasts 3-5 days, depending on the individual. Patients follow the same schedule as those attending inpatient rehab.
Once the detox period is over, our patients can continue with their treatment while staying at our facility. Our inpatient treatment consists of daily therapy and mental health assessments to find out the root causes of alcohol use disorder. SUN Behavioral Kentucky has trained professionals that offer different therapies such as cognitive behavioral, group, and recreational. We also offer wellness programs to allow you to experience different hobbies such as yoga and nature hikes. This program is monitored 24/7 and provides a safe and stress-reducing environment.
Outpatient services offer the same healing and treatment options as an inpatient stay, but the patient goes home at night. Typically, patients are coming to the facility every day. They are still usually at the facility for extended periods of the day when they do come in, receiving various therapies and medication management.
If you or someone you love is experiencing the stages of alcoholism and are ready for a change, there is help available. SUN Behavioral Health Kentucky is here to provide not only treatment, but hope for you to get your life back on track. Call us today at 859-429-5188 to see how we can get you started on the path to recovery today.
Liver damage doesn’t always come with symptoms, so it can be difficult to detect. Some signs of liver damage might include yellowing of the eyes, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain, or pain in the area of the liver.
The liver can repair itself in any stage of disease before cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the end-stage of liver disease and it is typically irreversible.
Regular and heavy drinking will usually cause liver disease within 10 years, but it can happen sooner, especially if someone commonly participates in binge drinking.