A Letter From Your Liver

Hello good friend,

It’s me, your liver. I hang out inside your abdomen all day doing what I do best. I know we’ve never met, but I’m the second largest organ in your body. I’m shaped like a football that has been deflated on one side, and I weigh around three pounds. I take everything you eat and turn it into the energy and nutrients you need to go about your day. Not to brag, but I’m kind of a big deal. I make your blood clot, I make your medications work, and I also remove anything that could harm your body.

One particular function of mine often goes overlooked. I am responsible for processing all of the alcohol that you drink. When you’re out having a good time, I make sure to turn that alcohol into water and carbon dioxide before it hits your bloodstream. However, if you drink more alcohol than I can handle, substances that make their way into your blood and parts of me will become damaged in the process.

I’m not saying that you can’t ever drink. Myself and the other organs down here just want you to be careful. If you find yourself drinking a little more often and heavier than you should, you can prevent any damage to my cells by seeking help for an addiction. In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, I just wanted to pop in for a second and let you know how drinking can affect me.

Be Smart about Alcohol and Your Liver

After years of heavy drinking, livers like me begin to deteriorate. I can only process a specific amount of alcohol every hour, and if you exceed that amount you will feel that alcohol hit your bloodstream. Drinking in moderation is perfectly fine with me. According to the CDC, one drink in the United States is equal to:

  • 12 ounces of beer with a 5 percent alcohol content

  • 8 ounces of malt liquor with a 7 percent alcohol content

  • 5 ounces of wine with a 12 percent alcohol content

  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol content, distilled spirits or liquor

Drinking Too Much Can Cause Liver Disease

To protect me, it’s recommended that women should have no more than one drink per day and men should stick to no more than two drinks per day. There are levels of drinking that are dangerous to me. Binge drinking can do a lot of damage to my cells. In general, binge drinking is consuming more than four drinks in one sitting for women and more than five drinks in one sitting for men. Another type of dangerous drinking, heavy drinking, is strongly correlated with liver disease. Heavy drinking occurs for women when they consume eight or more drinks per week. For men, heavy drinking is considered fifteen or more drinks per week. Heavy drinkers may be alcoholics or alcohol dependent.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?

There are three types of liver diseases that are directly related to heavy alcohol consumption: alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis. Each of these diseases can progress from one to the other over time.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

This condition occurs when fat is deposited into your liver cells. It’s considered an “early stage” of alcoholic liver disease. My symptoms are often minimal or non-existent, but I can make you feel fatigued, weak, or cause discomfort in your upper right abdomen. This condition is actually very common in heavy drinkers and often goes undetected. Staying away from alcohol can often reverse this disease and prevent any further damage to me.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

About thirty-five percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis, and 55 percent of those people already had alcoholic fatty liver disease. This disease is caused by excess fat build up in your liver cells, and also liver inflammation and mild scarring. This disease causes me to make you feel a little worse for wear. You might feel nauseated, have abdominal pain, vomit, not feel like eating and develop a fever and jaundice. Mild cases of alcoholic hepatitis can be reversed by avoiding alcohol, but more severe cases can lead to liver failure. 

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Dr. Donald J. Hillebrand, M.D., from the Center for Liver Disease, explains alcoholic cirrhosis from his perspective:

"This type of alcohol-related liver disease is the most advanced and most dangerous. It includes severe scarring and changes to the structure of your liver."

 Ten to 20 percent of heavy drinkers will develop cirrhosis of the liver. The symptoms I produce are similar to those related to alcoholic hepatitis, which include jaundice, fever, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Unlike alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis cannot be reversed. Avoiding alcohol will improve your symptoms, however.

I’m a Heavy Drinker. What Now?

The first steps to taking care of me are to stop drinking and see your doctor. Doctors can diagnose liver disease related to alcohol by examining a person’s history with alcohol, lab tests and radiologic exams, previous medical conditions, and possibly a liver biopsy. After being diagnosed with an alcoholic liver disease, your doctor will advise you to stay away from alcohol, participate in an alcohol treatment program, and make dietary changes.

So, take it from me. It’s important to take care of your liver! We do a lot of good things for you. Help keep us healthy by drinking safely and in moderation.

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