Dr. Ankur Jindal
MD – Gastroenterologist
Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, New Delhi – 11 years experience
The liver is the largest and most complex organ in our body. The liver performs over 500 different functions such as fighting off infection, manufacturing proteins and hormones, controlling blood sugar and helping to clot the blood. It is a vital organ that supports nearly every other organ in the body in some facet. Without a healthy liver, a person cannot survive.
The liver is a complex chemical factory that works 24 hours a day!
Your liver and body can usually cope with drinking small amounts of alcohol. However, drinking over the safe limits can lead to three types of liver conditions – fatty liver, hepatitis and liver ‘scarring’ (cirrhosis). A fatty liver does not cause symptoms and usually reverse if you stop drinking heavily. However, fatty liver progresses in some and develops into hepatitis. Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. A very severe bout of alcoholic hepatitis can quickly lead to liver failure. This can cause deep jaundice, blood clotting problems, confusion, coma, and bleeding into the guts. It is often fatal and liver transplantation is the only definite option.
About 1 in 10 heavy drinkers will eventually develop cirrhosis. It tends to occur after 10 or more years of heavy drinking. Cirrhosis develops when normal liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue (fibrosis). So, the liver gradually loses its ability to function well. Cirrhosis can happen more rapidly in patients with co-existing hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections. As more and liver cells die, symptoms start to appear such as the buildup of fluid in the stomach, mental confusion, internal bleeding and jaundice, which makes the skin and eyes have a yellow tint.
The heavier you drink and the more regularly you drink, the more your risk of developing hepatitis and/or cirrhosis. The scarring and damage of cirrhosis are usually permanent and cannot be reversed.
A doctor may suspect that you have liver problems from your symptoms, finding enlarged liver and fluid in the abdomen on examination and by abnormal liver function tests. For all types of liver diseases caused by alcohol, the only reprieve is that you should stop drinking alcohol altogether and at once. Many people, who drink heavily, do not eat properly and need advice on getting back into eating a healthy diet. Vitamin supplements may be prescribed for a while. If cirrhosis is diagnosed when it is not too advanced and you stop drinking alcohol, the cirrhosis is unlikely to progress. However, the cirrhosis and symptoms will usually get worse if you continue to drink alcohol. In severe cases where the scarring is extensive and the liver can barely function, a liver transplant may be the only option.
Help and treatment are available if you find that you cannot stop drinking alcohol. Counseling and support from a doctor, nurse, or counselor are often all that is needed. A detoxification treatment may be advised if you are alcohol-dependent.