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Alcohol’s Negative Impact on Liver Disease

Understanding why alcohol accelerates liver disease can help a person make the important commitment to stop drinking. Find out for yourself exactly why drinking is no longer an option for someone with a compromised liver.

When a person is diagnosed with any kind of liver disease, a physician will provide them with and recommend a list of lifestyle changes. The first and most important instruction for learning to live with liver disease revolves around not drinking any alcoholic beverages. These instructions are given because, in addition to causing liver disease, alcohol can also exponentially worsen existing liver disease. The directive to “stop drinking alcohol” is sometimes ignored by anyone who is not ready to abandon booze. Regardless of how well meaning this typical physician order is, commands dictating someone to end a habit, recreation or addiction, often fail.

Alcoholism statistics in the United States are staggering. There are approximately 14 million people in the U.S. addicted to alcohol, with millions more displaying symptoms of abuse, including binge drinking. Alcohol addiction, or alcohol dependence, is defined as having at least 3 of the following signs:

  • A tolerance for alcohol (needing increased amounts to achieve the same effect)
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Drinking alcohol in larger amounts than intended, or over a longer period of time than intended
  • Having a persistent desire to decrease, or the inability to decrease, the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Spending a great deal of time attempting to acquire alcohol
  • Continuing to use alcohol even though there are recurring physical or psychological problems being caused by the alcohol

Whether a person has recognized their drinking problem, is in denial about it, or just considers him or herself to be a social drinker, quitting drinking is filled with challenges. Hopefully, physicians advising people to abstain from alcohol provide a list of resources and support to help a person stop drinking.

Metabolism
After you swallow an alcoholic drink, about 25 percent of the alcohol is absorbed immediately from your stomach directly into the bloodstream. The remaining 75 percent makes its way to the small bowel where it then gets absorbed in the blood. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol remains in the body until it is metabolized. About 90 – 98 percent of alcohol is broken down in the liver. The other 2 – 10 percent is excreted via:

  • Urination
  • Exhalation
  • Perspiration

The primary way alcohol is broken down, or metabolized, by the liver is through the action of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). ADH breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde
Many people have experienced an upset stomach or vomited after drinking. The byproduct of alcohol metabolism, acetaldehyde, is a highly toxic substance. One of the many roles of the human liver is to filter toxins out of the body. Unfortunately, excessive toxin exposure damages the liver by killing its cells, reducing its ability to function.
A person with liver disease already has a compromised liver, rendering it incapable of effectively filtering out additional toxins.

Acetaldehyde (not the ethanol in an alcoholic beverage) is the molecule that causes impairment or drunkenness. Scientists have discovered that when acetaldehyde is bound to human liver plasma membranes, hepatic cell destruction occurs. Adding acetaldehyde to a liver already struggling with illness is analogous to kicking a man when he is already down.

Tolerance
Resulting from prolonged or heavy use, alcohol tolerance refers to progressively more consumption required to achieve the same altered state. There are two main types of tolerance resulting from prolonged or heavy use of alcohol:

1. Metabolic tolerance – Occurring in response to increased alcohol consumption, metabolic tolerance causes the liver to increase its production of alcohol dehydrogenase. This increase in enzyme production leads to a faster metabolization of the alcohol, resulting in a lower blood alcohol content and faster elimination. The increase in alcohol dehydrogenase production corresponds with increased stress on the liver.

2. Functional tolerance – By adapting to chronic alcohol use, functional tolerance results when a person’s sensitivity to alcohol’s effects is lowered. However, while a person’s sensitivity to alcohol’s effects may be decreased, blood alcohol content continues to rise. Although tolerance increases with alcohol consumption, the liver does not become more tolerant, and is increasingly damaged over the course of time.

Hepatitis C
Researchers have demonstrated that alcohol promotes proliferation of Hepatitis C in human liver cells. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia found that alcohol increases the activity of a protein called nuclear factor kappa B, which causes the Hepatitis C virus to replicate. Furthermore, they found that alcohol interferes with the antiviral activity of interferon-alpha, a key therapy used for patients infected with Hepatitis C. In addition to making therapy useless, these findings clearly show that someone with Hepatitis C who drinks alcohol is literally helping their viral load skyrocket.

While instructions from your doctor to quit drinking may not be enough to change your ways, learning how alcohol worsens liver disease may serve as sufficient motivation. It is easy to see why some healthcare professionals refer to drinking alcohol with liver disease as pouring gasoline on a fire. Whether you live with Hepatitis C or have any other liver disease, alcohol’s transformation to acetaldehyde unleashes a known, potent toxin onto your liver. Since tolerance to alcohol puts even further stress on an already disadvantaged liver, and drinking alcohol increases the Hepatitis C virus’ replication, it is obvious why doctors advise its avoidance. While no one claims it is easy to quit drinking, the documentation supporting alcohol’s damaging effects with liver disease are irrefutable.

Now that you know the facts – that alcohol negatively affects liver health – take every step necessary to completely abandon this harmful toxin.


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www.cumc.columbia.edu, Alcoholism Liver Disease, Howard J. Worman, MD, 2007.

www.intox.com, Alcohol and the Human Body, Intoximeters, Inc., 2007.

www.medicalnewstoday.com, How Alcohol Use May Worsen Hepatitis C Infection, John Ascenzi, MediLexicon International, Ltd., 2007.

www.mental-health-matters.com, Alcohol Addiction, Get Mental Help, Inc., 2007.

www.mydr.com.au, How Your Liver Processes Alcohol, CMPMedica Australia, 2007.

www.oregoncounseling.com, Biological Impacts of Alcohol Use: an Overview, Michaele P. Dunlap, Psy. D, 2007.

www.stopaddiction.com, Alcoholism Statistics, Narconon of Oklahoma, Inc., 2007.

www.rochester.edu, Tolerance and Beyond, University of Rochester, 2007.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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