Alcohol abuse can lead to many health complications. Even those individuals who wouldn’t usually be described as alcoholic can still develop serious problems. The liver is one of the organs that can be most damage due to overconsumption of alcohol. One condition that is very common among heavy drinkers is fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver is considered to be the first stage of alcoholic liver disease. In most instances this damage to the liver will only be temporary. It is estimated that about 90% of heavy drinkers will develop a fatty liver at some stage. Those who continue to abuse alcohol are likely to progress to further stages of alcoholic liver disease and eventually death.
Humans depend on their liver for survival. This is a hardy organ that can withstand a lot of abuse. There are limits to the ability of the liver to heal itself though. If this organ fails it will mean death unless a liver transplant is available. There are 500 different functions associated with the liver including:
* The manufacture of bile
* A role in blood clotting
* Dealing with waste and toxins
* Immune system functions
* Important for fat digestion
* Manufactures certain proteins and cholesterol
* Converts and stores excess glucose
* Regulates some hormones
Fatty liver occurs due to a process known as steatosis. It involves the abnormal retention of lipids within liver cells. It is normal for this organ to contain some fat but if it becomes greater than 10% of the weight of the liver it is considered fatty liver disease. Anyone who consumes more than 60 grams of alcohol a day will develop a fatty liver. This accumulation of fat replaces healthy liver tissue. It causes the organ to become enlarged and can start to cause damage. This is particularly likely to happen if fatty liver is accompanied with inflammation.
Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) can be due to:
* Oxidative stress
* Autoimmune diseases
* Rapid weight loss or malnutrition
* Complication of some drugs
* High cholesterol
The only way to distinguish between alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is by an assessment of the individual’s drinking history. The symptoms will be identical in either case.
Many people who develop fatty liver disease will never notice any symptoms. When it does become noticeable the individual may experience:
* Discomfort in the upper right quadrant or centre of the abdomen
* Feelings of fatigue
* Decreased appetite
* Nausea and vomiting
* Confusion and difficulty concentrating
* Patches of dark skin under the arm or on the neck
* Weight loss
There are a number of different tests that can be used to diagnose fatty liver disease including:
* A Liver Function Test (LFTs). This blood test can indicate any problems in the liver. One of the most important indicators for fatty liver will be ALT. The drawback of LFTs is it can be difficult to determine if the individual has fatty liver or the serious cirrhosis.
* A liver biopsy is considered the gold standard for determining fatty liver. This test can involve a bit of discomfort so it is only performed if deemed important.
* An ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan of the liver can also help with a fatty liver diagnosis.
Alcoholic liver disease progresses through three stages. It is only those individuals who pass to the final stage who will tend to develop irreversible damage. The three stages are:
* Fatty liver disease is the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease. Most individuals who develop a fatty liver will not progress to later stages.
* Alcoholic hepatitis is the second stage. This involves inflammation of the liver which can cause damage to the organ. Hepatitis can be fatal but most individuals will only experience mild symptoms that are similar to a flu bug.
* The final stage of alcoholic liver disease is cirrhosis. This is where so much damage has occurred that the organ is struggling to function. If the cirrhosis is not too extensive the individual will be able to improve their chances of survival by immediately giving up alcohol.
Some people are more prone to alcoholic liver disease than others. Women and older people are more at risk. They can progress to the later stages of alcoholic liver disease at a much faster rate. It is also more likely that heavy drinkers who are obese will be more likely to develop fatty liver. Genetics may be responsible for why some individuals become heavy drinkers and it can also affect how their body handles alcohol. Even moderately heavy drinkers will be at risk of developing alcoholic liver disease if they continue their level of consumption over many years.
Just because an individual has developed a fatty liver does not necessarily indicate that they are an alcoholic. It could easily be due to other causes such as poor diet or diabetes. If it is due to heavy alcohol use fatty liver disease can appear before the person progresses to physical dependency on alcohol. It should be taking as a warning sign. Some individuals go through a period of alcohol abuse but are later able to return to social drinking. Those who have lost control over their intake and developed a chemical dependency need to quit altogether. The diagnosis of fatty liver should always be taken seriously. If people continue to abuse alcohol it may well lead to irreparable damage to the liver.
This condition usually resolves after about two weeks so long as the individual refrains from further alcohol abuse. It is also necessary to ensure a balanced diet and that any nutritional deficiencies are remedied. There is no known medication that is successful in treating fatty liver.
If the individual has become dependent on alcohol they may need support to end their addiction. Withdrawals symptoms can be dangerous if the people have been abusing alcohol for a long time. It may be necessary for such individuals to undergo a medically supervised detox. They may also require a period in rehab where they can develop the tools needed for staying free of addiction.