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Liver Lessons

Your Body and Alcohol - Liver Lessons
22 August 2000 --

Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive, or mood-changing, recreational drug in Australia. Heavy drinking exacts quite a heavy toll on your body, the liver in particular.

In the first of a series on Alcohol and Your Body, Healthanswers writer Jennifer Paterson explores exactly what a few too many big nights out can do to the body's 'detox unit'.

The Hangover

Most of us have been there at least a few times - hangovers approaching near death experiences. Nausea, dull thumping headaches and a raging thirst. The bad news is that if you've had more than a few big nights on the town, the damage you do usually isn't confined to the more obvious hangover symptoms.

While a drink or two a few times a week generally does the average individual little harm, drinking more than that over an extended period of time may result in a liver which is inflamed and scarred. However, it isn't the alcohol itself which destroys livers.

What Does all the Damage?

In fact, it's the toxic free radicals and inflammatory chemicals your body releases as it struggles to deal with your over indulgence that do all the damage.

When released free radicals damage DNA, cell membranes and mitochondria (your cell 'powerhouses') causing what researchers have termed "oxidative stress". Your body has a natural defence against free radicals - antioxidants - however the stresses of modern life, combined with poor nutrition, can severely deplete your antioxidant levels.

Drinking regularly for a few weeks will cause fatty deposits to build up in your liver, which are generally harmless if you abstain from alcohol for a while.

However, if you were to continue drinking heavily your liver may become inflamed, and your abdomen sore all over - symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis. Left unchecked the inflammation can cause massive tissue damage, scarring and in a worst case scenario, cirrhosis.

Your liver is the principal source of protein for your body, an energy store, and metaboliser of cholesterol. Not to mention the body's detox unit. Serious damage impairs the liver's ability to carry out these processes efficiently.

Who's Most at Risk?

Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules - the severity of response will vary greatly between individuals. Factors which can affect the way your liver deals with alcohol include:

Your Diet - a diet low in natural sources of antioxidants (such as fresh fruit and vegetables) provides your body with less tools to fight liver-damaging free radicals.

Your Sex - women are generally smaller, and a key stomach enzyme - alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol, doesn't function as well in women as in men.

Bacteria - the number, and type of bacteria that live in your gut can affect the efficiency with which you metabolise alcohol.
The Strength of Your Immune Response - Genetic and environmental factors (such as lack of sleep) mean that some individuals have an immune system which functions more efficiently.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

More research is needed to establish exactly what causes alcohol induced liver disease. What has become apparent from research is that the standard advice on a safe level of alcohol consumption may not be appropriate for everybody. Until more conclusive answers have been established, it is advisable to limit your alcohol consumption to levels which are regarded as safe.

The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) defines low risk drinking as:

  • No more than 2 standard drinks per day for women

  • No more than 4 standard drinks per day for men

  • At least 2 alcohol free days per week

    Give Your Liver a Break

    Here's a few ways in which you can minimise your alcohol consumption:

    Drink Slowly - put down your glass between sips, and ask for your mixed drinks in tall glasses.
    Use Standard Drink Measurements to Monitor Your Intake - convert what you drink into standard drinks
    Eat before, or while you are drinking - food absorbs alcohol and slows your drinking pace
    Pace Yourself - try substituting a non alcoholic drink in between every alcoholic drink.
    Try a Low Alcohol Alternative - light beers, low alcohol wines and non-alcoholic cocktails are served at most bars.
    Have Alcohol Free Days - at least two per week.
    Keep a Diary - write down how much you drink each day. The amount you consume each week may be a surprise.
    Avoid Salty Snacks - such as chips and peanuts, which will dehydrate the body, causing you to drink more.

    For more information contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Counselling Service on: 1800 422 599.

    Date written: 22 August 2000

  • This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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