What Does Alcohol Do To Your Liver?

by Katie Stone, ND October 04, 2019 4 min read 1 Comment

What Does Alcohol Do To Your Liver?

Many cases of liver damage and disease can be traced back to drinking alcohol. While the occasional drink is unlikely to do too much damage, excessive or chronic drinking is one of the most effective ways to impair liver function.

Serious liver injury is often a direct result of both the toxic by-products of alcohol and the inflammation caused by these by-products. The longer that your liver is exposed to these toxins, the more likely you are to develop some form of liver damage.

Over time, this damage can lead to fibrosis and, eventually, liver cirrhosis.

Of course, it’s still possible to enjoy alcohol in small amounts without causing this kind of damage! Understanding what alcohol does to your liver can help you to make healthy decisions about your diet and lifestyle.

How the liver metabolizes alcohol

Most of the alcohol that you drink is processed by your liver. This involves the a group of enzymes known as alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH). They catalyze the oxidation of alcohol into other forms that can be processed by your body.

During this process, a number of potentially harmful byproducts are created. Acetaldehyde is one of the most toxic of these byproducts, even in low concentrations.

In most cases, another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) quickly turns acetaldehyde into acetate. Most of this acetate then travels through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, where it can be broken down and used for energy or other purposes. In fact, one of the main jobs of ADH and ALDH is actually to metabolize vitamin A.

How does liver damage happen?

The issues that lead to liver injury are somewhat complex. Oxygen plays a role because of the effects of free radicals, antioxidants, and hypoxia. Most of the alcohol-related damage to liver cells begins with free radicals.

Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules with free outer electrons, which makes them highly reactive because they ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules in order to become stable.

Excess acetaldehyde is one of the ways in which these free radicals are formed.

While small quantities of free radicals are quickly scavenged by natural antioxidants in your body, they may not be able to take care of all of them. As a result, free radicals can be produced in excess when antioxidant defenses are impaired. This can then lead to them destroying vital cells and even cell death.

Researchers have shown that chronic alcoholism is a key factor in liver injury, largely because of the free radicals produced by alcohol metabolism and acetaldehyde. (1)

How does liver disease begin?

One of the scary things about alcoholic liver disease is that it often sets in slowly, getting worse over time. It begins with fat building up in your liver, which makes it more difficult for normal detoxification processes to take place. It also means that your body is less able to absorb nutrients from food. 

If you continue to drink alcohol, your liver cells will continue to suffer. This can cause your body to start replacing the healthy tissue in your liver with scar tissue, leading to alcoholic liver cirrhosis.

The good news is that liver cells can renew themselves, so it’s possible to reverse liver damage. However, this can only happen up to a certain point. Continuing to drink alcohol to excess will only lead to more and more damage as the liver tissue turns into scar tissue. When scarring gets out of hand, the liver may stop functioning completely.

Certain factors may predispose you to cirrhosis. Women are more susceptible, partly because they are twice as sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol on the liver.

Types of Alcohol-Related Liver Damage

The liver is quite resilient during your younger years and can actually cope with limited function even during the early stages of liver disease. However, as time goes on, the damage will become more problematic.

Symptoms of liver damage from alcohol usually develop between the ages of 30 and 40. These typically begin with jaundice, portal hypertension (an increase of blood pressure in the vein that travels through the liver) and itchy skin (pruritus).

Liver damage may also manifest as:

  • Fatty liver
    Fat deposition in the liver is common in heavy drinkers. Over time, it can cause significant harm to normal liver function. Fortunately, it is reversible and doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term damage.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
    This is caused by widespread inflammation and destruction of liver tissue and occurs in almost half of heavy drinkers. Fibrosis may develop, a process in which healthy tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Symptoms include fever, jaundice and abdominal pain. If untreated, alcoholic hepatitis can be fatal. However, it can also be reversed.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis
    As mentioned above, this is the most serious form of liver disease. It occurs in around 15-30 percent of heavy drinkers due to major fibrosis. Scar tissue causes the blood vessels to stiffen, hindering the normal structure of the liver. This leads to serious malfunction, which disrupts the function of other organs. Cirrhosis is sometimes fatal due to the complications it causes in the body, such as kidney failure and hypertension. However, if alcohol is completely cut out, it can be stabilized. (2)

How To Avoid Damaging Your Liver

The most obvious way to avoid alcohol-induced liver damage is to stop drinking alcohol! However, it is also possible to enjoy alcohol in moderation, greatly reducing your chances of causing damage to those important liver cells.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) describes ‘moderate’ as up to four alcoholic drinks for men and three for women in any single day, with a maximum of 14 drinks for men and seven drinks for women per week. In this case, less is definitely better.

If you are already suffering from liver damage, there are plenty of ways to reverse it. Research into the causes of liver injury has led to new treatments for alcoholic liver disease, including the use of natural herbs and antioxidants.

Natural treatments including milk thistle, NAC, artichoke, and dandelion root are clinically proven to benefit the liver.

In some cases these natural treatments have been used by physicians for hundreds of years. (3)

Including a few of these liver-supportive ingredients in your daily supplement regime could do wonders for your liver health. Our Liver Support formula contains 11 of these liver-supportive ingredients. You can read more about it here!

Katie Stone, ND
Katie Stone, ND


1 Response

Bob Dziuban
Bob Dziuban

October 13, 2019

Thanks for the article,very informative!I take balance ones “liver support “.Would it be too much to double-up on dosage?

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