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Alcohol and its effect on your liver

Simon Scarfe

Your liver works hard to rid your body of toxins that may come from your diet and the environment. One of those toxins is very common and is willingly ingested on a regular basis. Alcohol, if consumed in moderation, doesn’t pose any risk to your liver. Excessive drinking, though, over long periods of time, can cause problems.

Dr. Shannon Bailey, a professor of pathology and environmental health sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham joins us today to discuss how alcohol affects the liver in the long term.

The liver isn't only responsible for getting rid of toxins in your body. It also stores nutrients and produces enzymes and proteins responsible for keeping you healthy. While it is a self-sustaining organ and the only one with the ability to regenerate itself, substances like alcohol can inhibit your liver function.

Enzymes in the liver metabolize toxins that come through the organ, including alcohol. When you drink, special enzymes metabolize the alcohol and its byproducts so they can safely exit your system.

"So there is a number of enzyme systems in the liver, one key system is the alcohol dehydrogenase system. So it will begin to metabolize that alcohol into byproducts," says Bailey. "One of those byproducts unfortunately is much more toxic than the alcohol so that then has to be rapidly metabolized."

While drinking in moderation isn't enough to damage your liver excessively, binge drinking can cause harm over time. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in the span of two hours. While the liver is made to filter toxins, overworking it could lead to consequences down the road.

"But if we do overindulge or abuse it, yeah it can fail. You know most disease of the liver, chronic diseases from lifestyle choices that we make, will take many, many years to develop," said Bailey

It does take a long time for your liver to see the effects of some diseases related to alcohol but one problem can come with even just a few days of heavy drinking.

“Heavy drinking, even for just a few days can cause a condition caused hepatic steatosis or fatty liver. This is the earliest stage of alcoholic liver diseases and it is the most common alcoholic liver disease,” said Bailey.

Other serious conditions that can inhibit liver function include:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Liver fibrosis
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Liver cancer

Heavy drinking combined with other outside factors are the main reason people will develop liver problems in their lifetime.
“It’s alcohol in combination with other genetic and lifestyle factors that can lead to the more serious liver diseases,” said Bailey.