There are often no notable symptoms in the early stages of alcohol-related liver disease. If you do have symptoms, they may include pain or discomfort in the upper right side of your abdomen, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss.
Your liver is the organ found on the upper right side of your abdomen, just under your ribs. It has many functions that are essential to your health, such as:
- breaking down drugs, alcohol, and other potentially toxic substances
- producing bile to aid with the digestion of fats
- storing nutrients like glucose in the form of glycogen, as well as certain types of vitamins
- making proteins that are important for blood clotting
Various substances can damage your liver. While liver tissue can regenerate, continued damage can lead to the buildup of scar tissue. As scar tissue forms, it replaces healthy liver tissue. This can impair your liver’s ability to carry out its vital functions.
Below, we’ll explore the early signs of alcohol-related liver disease, what alcohol actually does to your liver, and what steps you can take in your day-to-day life to improve your liver health.
One of your liver’s jobs is to break down potentially toxic substances. This includes alcohol. When you drink, different enzymes in your liver work to break down alcohol so that it can be removed from your body.
When you drink more than your liver can effectively process, alcohol and its byproducts can damage your liver. This initially takes the form of increased fat in your liver, but over time it can lead to inflammation and the accumulation of scar tissue.
The early stages of alcohol-related liver disease often have no symptoms. Because of this, you may not even know that you’ve experienced liver damage due to alcohol.
If symptoms are present, they may include:
Alcohol-related liver disease actually encompasses three different liver conditions. Let’s discuss each of these in a bit more detail.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is also called hepatic steatosis. It happens when fat begins to build up within your liver. Consuming too much alcohol can inhibit the breakdown of fats in the liver, causing fat accumulation.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is common in heavy drinkers. In fact, it’s estimated that up to
People with alcoholic fatty liver disease typically have no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they can include:
- discomfort in the area of the liver
- unexplained weight loss
Alcoholic fatty liver disease can be reversed by abstaining from alcohol for at least several weeks. The exact amount of time can vary by individual. For some, abstinence may need to be permanent.
If someone with this condition has alcohol use disorder, a healthcare provider will need to set up a treatment plan. This plan will help manage the condition as well as the withdrawal symptoms that may occur with abstinence.
If excessive alcohol consumption continues, inflammation levels can begin to increase in the liver. This can lead to a condition called alcoholic hepatitis.
Alcoholic hepatitis can have the following symptoms:
- pain in the area of the liver
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Alcoholic hepatitis can be mild or severe. In mild alcoholic hepatitis, liver damage occurs slowly over the course of many years.
Severe alcoholic hepatitis can come on suddenly, such as after binge drinking, and can be life threatening.
If you develop alcoholic hepatitis, you may be able to reverse the damage by permanently abstaining from alcohol. Treatment also involves dietary changes and medications to reduce inflammation.
Some people with severe alcoholic hepatitis may need a liver transplant.
Continued liver damage due to alcohol consumption can lead to the formation of scar tissue, which begins to replace healthy liver tissue. This is referred to as fibrosis. When extensive fibrosis has occurred, alcoholic cirrhosis develops.
The symptoms of alcoholic cirrhosis are similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis. Additionally, alcoholic cirrhosis can lead to a variety of serious health complications, such as:
- portal hypertension (high blood pressure of the liver)
- ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdomen)
- hepatic encephalopathy (brain damage due to increased toxin levels in the blood)
- bleeding from veins in the upper digestive tract (varices)
- increased risk of infection
- kidney failure
- liver cancer
Alcoholic cirrhosis can’t be reversed. Treatment focuses on minimizing additional liver damage while addressing any complications that arise. In advanced cases, a liver transplant may be necessary.
Some of the risk factors for developing alcohol-related liver disease include:
- Alcohol consumption. Although drinking in moderation can cause some degree of fatty liver, consuming high quantities of alcohol over a long period of time puts you at an increased risk of alcohol-related liver disease.
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop alcohol-related liver disease than men.
- Obesity. People who have obesity are at a higher risk of alcohol-related liver disease.
- Infections. Liver damage is accelerated in individuals who have chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
- Genetics. Genetic factors can influence how your body processes alcohol as well as your risk for alcohol-related liver disease or alcohol use disorder.
There are several steps you can take to help improve the health of your liver. Cutting down on your alcohol consumption is one of them.
Drinking alcohol in moderation can help lower your risk of liver disease. The
- up to 1 drink per day for women
- up to 2 drinks per day for men
Keep in mind that what’s considered a standard drink can vary based on the type of alcohol you’re consuming. One drink is considered to be:
- 12 ounces (oz) of beer (5 percent alcohol)
- 8 oz of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
- 5 oz of wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 oz of liquor (40 percent alcohol)
It’s important to avoid drinking alcohol altogether if you’re:
- recovering from alcohol use disorder
- taking medications that can interact with alcohol
Additional tips for boosting liver health
In addition to reducing your alcohol intake, you can also take the following steps to help boost the health of your liver:
- Eat a healthy diet. Try to eat a diet rich in fresh produce, whole grains, and lean protein. Limit foods that are high in sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined carbohydrates.
- Break a sweat. Regular exercise can help reduce excess fat in your body, including fat in your liver.
- Manage weight. Having obesity can increase your risk of alcohol-related liver disease. If you’re overweight or obese, work with your doctor to develop a weight loss plan that’s right for you.
- Mind your medications. Some medications and supplements can stress your liver. Examples include acetaminophen (Tylenol), statins, and ephedra. Always take these as directed and avoid taking them with alcohol.
- Protect against hepatitis. Some ways to prevent getting viral hepatitis include getting vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, using condoms and other barrier methods during sex, and not reusing needles or other injectable drug materials.
- Have regular checkups. Seeing your doctor regularly can help your doctor identify and treat any underlying health conditions early. Additionally, if you have early symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor.
Alcohol is one of several substances that can damage your liver. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause fat to build up in your liver. This can lead to inflammation and an increase in scar tissue, which can seriously impact your liver’s ability to function as it should.
The early stages of alcohol-related liver disease typically have no symptoms. When they’re present, the early symptoms can include pain in the area of your liver, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.
The early stages of alcohol-related liver disease can potentially be reversed by abstaining from alcohol. For some people, this may need to be permanent. If damage persists, alcoholic cirrhosis can develop, which can’t be reversed.
You can improve the health of your liver by abstaining from alcohol or only drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, and managing your weight. If you notice early signs of alcohol-related liver disease, be sure to follow up with your doctor.