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Female saying no to alcohol

Know When to Say When: Alcohol and Your Liver

By Jake Schlemmer, MD April 02, 2024 Posted in: Wellness

Call it a hangover from pandemic times. An increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID shutdown has been noted in studies with many people consuming high-risk amounts of alcohol. 

Studies project that if these high-risk drinking trends continue over the next 20 years, 956,000 people will die annually from alcoholic liver disease. In recognition of Alcohol Awareness Month, let’s talk about how alcohol affects your liver health. 

Alcohol and Your Liver 

The liver normally breaks down alcohol, but if the amount of alcohol consumed exceeds the liver's ability to break it down, toxins can build up to cause liver damage over time. As a result, the liver is not able to perform its functions as well, including breaking down other toxins and making vital nutrients. 

Signs of Liver Damage

Liver damage from alcohol can be difficult to detect as early liver damage often has no symptoms. Symptoms of more advanced liver damage may include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, yellowing of skin or eyes, fluid buildup, or confusion.

Safe Consumption

A standard drink is any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. Some examples include one 12 oz beer or a 5 oz glass of wine. A single mixed drink typically contains from one to three standard drinks. 

  • For healthy men up to age 65 it is recommended to drink no more than 4 drinks in a day and no more than 14 drinks in a week. 
  • For men over age 65 and all women it is recommended to drink no more than 3 drinks in a day and no more than 7 drinks in a week. 
  • People with certain medical conditions or prescription medications should drink even less. 

Treating Liver Disease

For advanced liver disease, prescription medications can help treat the complications of liver disease. For all forms of alcoholic liver disease, stopping alcohol consumption is vital. With early liver disease, the liver can often recover after time with complete avoidance of alcohol. If liver disease is so severe that it causes liver failure, the damage is usually permanent. 

The liver is involved in the functions of multiple organs, so there can be many complications with advanced liver disease, such as kidney failure, compromised immune system, increased risk of blood clots, liver cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding, and lung complications. 

How to Say When 

Participating in a formal treatment program can be a great resource for people looking to quit drinking. Other options include behavioral treatment with counseling, medications, mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and addiction specialists. 

If you would like help quitting or reducing alcohol consumption, start by making an appointment with your primary care provider. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) also has helpful resources for learning more about alcohol. 

Jake Schlemmer, MD
Jake Schlemmer, MD

Jake Schlemmer, MD is a Family Medicine provider with CHI Health.

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