Throughout the U.S, alcohol abuse and addiction seems to be on the rise, with an estimated 15 million American adults living with alcoholism. It’s no secret that an excessive amount of alcohol will take a negative impact on your physical, emotional and mental health. It will take a toll on your relationships and your everyday life, as well. But probably the most negatively impactful thing alcohol does to a person is potential liver damage. With so much fear surrounding alcoholism and what it does to the liver, many people wonder if they have options for getting healthy again. Can the liver heal from alcohol abuse? You might be surprised!
One of the most damaging consequences of prolonged alcohol abuse is the damage it can cause to your liver. Over 157,000 people in the United States have needed to receive a liver transplant in the past 20 years, making it the second most common type of transplant surgery. Likewise, studies have shown that alcohol abuse is the number one cause of severe liver damage in North America.
For anyone who suffers from alcohol abuse or knows someone who does, these statistics can seem frightening. Fortunately, there are options available for treating and repairing damage to the liver caused by alcohol. This article will explain the science behind liver damage, and how to live a healthier life without alcohol affecting your vital organs.
What Does Your Liver Do?
The human liver is the key component of our digestive system. It’s located on the right side of the abdomen, just below the ribs. It will usually hold over 10% of our bodies’ blood, which contributes to its average weight of about 3 pounds or 1.4 kilograms, while also making it the largest internal organ. While we’re on the subject of blood, this is the main reason we need our livers. The liver is in charge of filtering blood throughout our bodies.
When our blood gets filtered by the liver, certain compounds and hormones are removed from the body. This includes compounds that are naturally produced in our bodies, such as estrogen. It can also include external compounds that enter our bodies, such as food, vitamins, alcohol and other types of drugs.
While filtering blood is the simplest and most known function of the liver, the liver is also in charge of or contributes to several other processes that allow our bodies to function properly. For example, the liver produces bile. Bile allows us to metabolize and absorb fats and cholesterol properly.
The liver needs to produce enough bile so that our body can absorb Vitamin K and therefore properly induce blood clotting. Blood clotting is a natural process that helps our bodies heal from wounds and injuries. Additionally, the liver can contain and help metabolize carbs and proteins, as well as producing certain proteins such as albumin. Albumin prevents us from having our blood vessels leak. These are only a few of the most important functions our livers are in charge of. Needless to say, it’s quite a vital part of sustaining health and life for every individual.
How Does Alcohol Abuse Damage the Liver?
It’s a well-known fact that drinking too much alcohol usually has a negative effect on your physical health, particularly your liver. However, without knowing the exact science behind why that is, many people suffering from alcohol abuse might gloss over that fact.
When we drink alcohol, it enters our bloodstream. The alcohol-affected blood then goes to our liver in order to be processed. One single alcoholic drink will take around one hour to be processed completely by the liver. Therefore, when a body has an excessive amount of alcohol, it can become impossible to process it all at once. (This is why binge drinking is dangerous.)
During this whole process, the alcohol will circulate back through our bloodstream and cause us to become intoxicated by reaching the heart and brain. While picturing this cycle happening with just a couple of drinks in a single day, imagine how harmful it can be for someone who drinks excessively throughout the day. Or, on an everyday basis.
A consistent and chronic amount of alcohol abuse will result in your liver cells being damaged and possibly destroyed to the point of disease. Live diseases can range from things such as:
- liver cancer
- liver scarring
This last type of damage to your liver (cirrhosis) can be fatal. It is found in up to 30% of people with excessive drinking habits on an annual basis.
However, while thousands of people die every year from cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse, the majority are able to survive by seeking addiction treatment in order to quit abusing alcohol.
What Are Some Signs & Symptoms of Liver Damage?
If you suspect you or a loved one might be suffering from liver damage due to alcohol abuse, there are several physical symptoms that you should be looking out for. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Jaundice, meaning yellowed skin or eyes
- Stomach pain
- Unusually darkened urine
- Lack of appetite
- Numerous or frequent bruises
- Chronic fatigue
- Swollen legs or ankles
- Itchy skin
- Blood in your stool
- Pale or black stool
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swollen or bloated abdomen
Can the Liver Heal After Abusing Alcohol?
Despite the severe damage to our liver that can be caused by alcohol, the good news is that our livers are one of the few human organs that can regenerate and heal by themselves. A healthy liver can heal up to 70% of its cells after damage to the organ.
However, this can only happen when you take certain measures to allow your liver to heal on its own. Likewise, there are extreme cases where liver damage is too advanced to be reversible.
Let’s think of what happens when we injure our skin. Typically, the wound or cut will scab and eventually heal, perhaps leaving you with a scar. A similar cycle can happen to our livers. The science behind liver regeneration is that it never really stops. Our livers are constantly healing themselves as long as they are not processing alcohol or other harmful substances that are too intense on a regular basis.
Depending on the severity of the alcohol abuse that one has inflicted on their liver, it can take as little as a few weeks or as long as many, many years to completely heal itself from the damage done. The more alcohol you’ve drunk or continue to drink, the longer your liver takes to heal. Likewise, the longer you keep drinking, the higher the chance your liver will enter a state where it’s no longer able to regenerate.
How to Have a Healthier Liver After Drinking Too Much Alcohol
So, can your liver heal from alcohol abuse? Now that we know it’s possible for the liver to do its work in healing, in most non-severe cases, it’s important to understand the measures you should take to make this happen. The following list will explain the three main steps that are recommended for beginning your recovery towards a healthy liver after alcohol abuse.
Seek out a Medical Evaluation
If you’re showing signs and symptoms of liver damage, it’s important to visit your doctor in order to receive a proper diagnosis if necessary and be given the best and most effective choices available for your treatment.
The tests you may have to undergo in order to receive a diagnosis will vary depending on the symptoms you describe to your medical professional. Your doctor may require you to undergo a urine exam, a blood test, a liver biopsy, a CT scan, an abdominal ultrasound or a number of other tests in order to determine the health of your liver.
There are several different types of liver diseases that exist, including alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, hepatitis, liver cancer, and general liver failure. The treatment for your liver damage will depend on your diagnosis, but they will generally follow the same initial steps to prepare for your healing. If the damage is very severe, you might have to undergo a blood transfusion, take certain medication, use IV fluids or you might even be put on a waiting list for a liver transplant.
Pick Up Healthy Lifestyle Habits
While most liver damage, particularly severe ones caused by alcohol abuse, can’t be treated solely by eating healthy food and exercising. In all cases, it is incredibly helpful for speeding the regeneration of your liver and improving your overall internal health.
Additionally, picking up healthy lifestyle habits while quitting alcohol can be very helpful for maintaining your abstinence and continuing to enjoy life without abusing alcohol. Healthy changes to your diet and activity will probably be part of a medical program assigned and monitored by your health professionals, with regular checkups and tests to see how your liver is progressing.
Additionally, in general, healthy lifestyle habits follow a certain pattern of recommended activities, food, and drinks. For example, it’s very helpful for your liver regeneration to drink lots of water and stay away from sugary and/or carbonated beverages. Likewise, it’s important to keep a healthy and well-balanced diet, avoiding consuming too much food that is highly processed, sugary, or concentrated in fat, salt, and carbs.
Foods that are recommended to be a central part of your diet in order to keep a healthy liver include:
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy
- high fiber plants
- detoxifying supplements and drinks, like black coffee
As with most healthy lifestyle methods, exercise is highly recommended to help your liver heal properly. An active lifestyle of at least two and a half hours of low, medium or high-intensity workouts per week will lower the stress put on your liver and help keep your energy high.
Completely Stop Drinking Alcohol
Lastly, the most important step towards healing your liver when damaged by alcohol abuse is to immediately quit drinking alcohol. This doesn’t mean you need to simply cut back on drinks, especially if you’re suffering from an addiction or a substance use disorder. You should aim for complete abstinence from alcohol, typically in a safe, detoxifying method.
This is because when your liver reaches the point of damage where you’re suffering from the symptoms of liver disease or another liver failure illness, the organ has already reached its maximum point of alcohol that it can handle. Only by completely abstaining from the substance can it properly heal.
As we’ve mentioned, this process can take as much as several years to return your liver to a healthy state. For those people who suffer from alcoholism or an addiction disorder, or are in risk of developing one, rehab is a vital resource in order to help you detox and adjust to a sober life.
Alcohol rehab will provide you with counseling, support groups and medical treatment to guide you on your path to recovery. It’s important to remember that while recovery is a long process, it is always possible with help from the right resources.
Seek Treatment and Support for Alcoholism Recovery
If you need to have your liver heal from alcohol abuse but cannot stop drinking, it’s vital to get addiction treatment. Addiction is a disease and can seem impossible to stop using alcohol or drugs when in the advance stages of chemical dependency. At Opus Health we know what it’s like to be addicted and feel hopeless. It can be scary to worry about your health, livelihood, and even your family and friends in such a desperate time.
If you or someone you care about is suffering from alcohol addiction, reach out to a rehab center to get the support they need. Recovery is a lifelong process that starts with simple detox. Alcohol detox can be dangerous, so looking into medically-supported options can be life-saving! If you have questions reach out to your local addiction treatment programs. Reach out and ask how you can get sober in order to heal your liver heal from alcohol abuse and its damaging effects today.