Alcohol-Related Liver Disease: Can You Repair Liver Damage From Alcohol?
Last Updated: February 17, 2023
Most people know that alcohol affects your liver but don’t know exactly how this process works and how to protect their liver from alcohol best. By understanding how alcohol causes liver damage, you can avoid the long-term damage alcohol causes and help maintain the best liver health possible.
What Is Alcohol-Related Liver Disease (ARLD)?
Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) refers to a group of liver diseases that occur with alcohol use, often predictably and sequentially. These steps are sometimes described as stages, and each stage leads to the next. There are three stages to ARLD, with the first two being reversible and the third being permanent.
Alcohol is a toxin that has to be processed by the liver. ARLD occurs because alcohol puts stress on the liver. Heavy drinking over several years can lead to ARLD; however, research shows that binge drinking can begin causing noticeable liver damage in as little as seven weeks.
Stage 1: Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease, or hepatic steatosis, is the first step of liver damage caused by alcohol. In this step of liver damage, alcohol encourages the production of fat in the liver while inhibiting the breakdown of fats in the liver. This ultimately leads to a build-up of fat in the liver. Fatty liver disease is a silent disease, often causing no symptoms or medical problems. The main danger of fatty liver disease is more serious liver damage.
Fatty Liver Disease Symptoms
The only commonly reported symptom of fatty liver disease is increased tiredness or fatigue. This fatigue is not experienced by everyone with fatty liver disease and is not severe enough to cause an extensive medical workup. As a result, many people with fatty liver disease don’t know they have it. Often people will only find out they had fatty liver disease once they develop a more serious liver problem.
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Stage 2: Alcoholic Hepatitis
When fatty liver disease is present for a prolonged period of time, it causes inflammation in the liver or hepatitis. This liver inflammation causes swelling and irritation, preventing proper liver cell function. Because hepatitis causes noticeable symptoms, many people with ARLD will first notice a problem at this stage of the disease process.
Alcoholic Hepatitis Symptoms
Hepatitis can lead to several noticeable symptoms that can become dangerous if severe and may require medical treatment. Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
- Dark-colored urine
- Increased fat in feces
- Joint pain
Stage 3: Cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is the most serious liver problem that heavy alcohol use will lead to eventually. The inflammation that occurs with alcoholic hepatitis eventually leads to the development of scar tissue in the liver, called cirrhosis. This scar tissue destroys the function of the liver cells where it develops, gradually decreasing liver function permanently.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis Symptoms
The liver performs many important functions, and cirrhosis permanently decreases its ability to provide these functions. This can lead to symptoms that include:
- Bleeding easily
- Yellow of the skin or whites of the eyes
- Swelling in the abdomen or legs
- Severe itchiness
- Kidney problem
- Swollen veins that rupture and cause internal bleeding
Complications of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
The liver affects many important body functions. When ARLD is present, especially when it is advanced, it can lead to many long-term complications. The liver is essential in making the chemicals needed to stop bleeding. Liver damage can result in easy bleeding, leading to nosebleeds, bruising, and excessive bleeding from cuts or scratches.
The liver also produces albumin, a chemical that controls water distribution in the body. Impaired albumin production leads to swelling in the legs and abdomen, causing difficulty breathing and other problems. The liver also filters out many toxins and dangerous chemicals. Impairments in this process can lead to confusion and other health problems.
One of the most serious problems that liver disease can cause is creating esophageal varices, swollen veins in the esophagus. These veins can rupture suddenly, leading to massive internal bleeding that is almost impossible to control. This can cause someone with liver disease to suddenly bleed to death.
Diagnosing Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
Several different tools can be used to diagnose liver disease. Blood work is one key tool used in the diagnostic process, as lab results can indicate how well the liver is functioning. Imaging using CT scans, MRIs, or ultrasound is also important in helping detect fatty liver disease before symptoms develop. Additionally, doctors may perform a liver biopsy, using a needle to remove a small piece of the liver to examine under a microscope.
Treatment For Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
The single most important treatment for ARLD is to stop drinking alcohol. There is no way to prevent continued liver damage caused by alcohol if alcohol use is not stopped. If alcohol is the main cause of liver disease, stopping alcohol use will stop liver inflammation and reduce fat build-up in the liver.
Stopping alcohol use will not help reverse cirrhosis; however, it will enable the body to heal the inflammation causing cirrhosis. This will help you feel the best you can but will not restore function lost to cirrhosis. The only way to fix the effects of cirrhosis is to get a liver transplant. People who are actively using alcohol are often not eligible for liver transplants, and stopping alcohol would be necessary before a liver transplant.
Can The Liver Repair Itself After Years of Drinking?
The liver is a very resilient organ and will often heal the damage that has not developed into permanent scar tissue. Hepatitis and fatty liver disease can heal themselves if the underlying cause of these conditions, like alcohol use, is stopped.
The liver cannot, however, heal scar tissue that has developed; this is permanent. Someone who has scarring of the liver often also has inflammation and fat deposits contributing to overall liver problems. Stopping alcohol can remove these problems; cirrhosis may not be as serious when it is the only liver problem.
How Quickly Can The Liver Repair Itself?
When part of the liver is removed, the liver can repair the damage in less than two weeks. The liver heals very quickly and will often begin to repair itself within just a few days of stopping alcohol use. Because inflammation can last for several days or weeks, it may take several weeks or even months for the liver to reach its optimal level of function after stopping drinking.
Tips For Healing Liver Damage From Alcohol Use
People with liver damage from alcohol use often wonder what they can do to heal their liver. Some top tips for healing liver damage caused by alcohol use include:
- Stop using alcohol – Stopping alcohol is the first and only essential step to stopping ARLD.
- Exercise – Regular exercise is essential to health and promotes liver health by managing weight and improving immune system health.
- Follow a healthy diet – Avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugars and fats while following a diet that includes vegetables and fruits will improve liver health.
- Review your medications – Many seemingly harmless medicines, like Tylenol, can negatively affect your liver. Review your medicines with your doctor to ensure they are not affecting your liver health.
- Stop smoking – While smoking does not directly affect the liver as alcohol does, it still impairs your liver health. Avoiding smoking can help your liver heal faster.
If you or a loved one are experiencing liver problems related to alcohol use, the only way to stop the progression of these issues is by quitting alcohol for good. Quitting alcohol can be difficult, especially if addiction has set in. That is why we encourage people to seek professional help to stop using alcohol to improve their health and avoid permanent liver damage.
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- NHS. “Overview: Alcohol-related liver disease.” August 10, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- Farley, Pete. “Binge Drinking May Quickly Lead to Liver Damage.” University of California San Francisco. January 19, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. “Fatty Liver Disease.” April 26, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- Lieber, Charles S. “Alcoholic fatty liver: its pathogenesis […]mmation and fibrosis.” Alcohol. August 2004. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. “Hepatitis.” September 9, 2020. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. “Cirrhosis.” November 1, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- NHS. “Diagnosis: Alcohol-related liver disease.” August 10, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- NHS. “Treatment: Alcohol-related liver disease.” August 10, 2018. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Definition & Facts of Liver Transplant.” March 2017. Accessed June 8, 2022.
- Michalopoulos, George K. “Liver Regeneration.” Journal of Cellular Physiology. June 24, 2009. Accessed June 8, 2022.
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