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Ellis: How Alcohol Affects The Liver

By Glenn Ellis

Liver cancer is the third most common cancer in the world. A deadly cancer, liver cancer will kill almost all patients who have it within a year. The liver is the largest organ inside the body. It lies under your right ribs, just below the right lung. If you poke your fingers up under your right ribs, you would almost touch your liver.

You cannot live without your liver. It has many vital jobs: It breaks down and stores many of the nutrients absorbed from the intestine; it makes some of the clotting factors needed to stop bleeding from a cut or injury; it makes bile that goes into the intestine to help absorb nutrients; it plays an important part in getting rid of toxic wastes from the body. The liver is also responsible for producing cholesterol. It produces about 80 percent of the cholesterol in your body. Although these are all important jobs that the liver performs, they are but a few, remember there are more than 500 functions.

The outlook for your health or your recovery (prognosis) depends on what type of tumor you have. Though alcohol affects every organ of the body, its most dramatic impact is upon the liver.

Alcohol metabolism permanently changes liver cell structure, which impairs the liver’s ability to metabolize fats.  This explains why heavy drinkers tend to develop fatty livers. Alcohol is, by far, the most widely used drug in our society. Most people never think of it as a drug and if it is consumed to excess it can have a very damaging effect on the human body.

When ingested, alcohol passes from the stomach into the small intestine, where it is rapidly absorbed into the blood and distributed throughout the body. Because it is distributed so quickly and thoroughly, alcohol can affect the central nervous system even in small concentrations. In low concentrations, alcohol reduces inhibitions. With very high concentrations a person can become comatose and die.

If you’re trying to watch your waistline, drinking too much alcohol can be disastrous! Research reveals that a man drinking five pints a week consumes the same number of calories as someone getting through 221 doughnuts a year.

Drinking too much alcohol isn’t great news for your skin either. As well as causing bloating and dark circles under your eyes, alcohol dries out your skin and can lead to wrinkles and premature aging.

The liver is responsible for the elimination – through metabolism – of 95 percent of ingested alcohol from the body. The remainder of the alcohol is eliminated through excretion of alcohol in breath, urine, sweat, feces, and saliva.

The body metabolizes alcohol extremely quickly.  Unlike foods, which require time for digestion, alcohol needs no digestion and is quickly absorbed.   Alcohol gets the “VIP” treatment in the body!

Once swallowed, a drink enters the stomach and small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and most of the remaining 80 percent is absorbed through the small intestine.

With moderate drinking, the liver can process alcohol fairly safely.  However, heavy drinking overtaxes the liver resulting in serious consequences.  A liver clogged with fat causes liver cells to become less efficient at performing their necessary tasks, resulting in impairment of a person’s nutritional health.

Fatty liver is the first stage of liver deterioration in heavy drinkers and interferes with the distribution of oxygen and nutrients to the liver’s cells.

If the condition persists long enough, the liver cells will die, forming fibrous scar tissue (the second stage of liver deterioration, or fibrosis).  Some liver cells can regenerate with good nutrition and abstinence, however in the last stage of deterioration, or cirrhosis, the damage to the liver cells is the least reversible.

Because of several physiological reasons, a woman will feel the effects of alcohol more than a man, even if they are the same size. There is also increasing evidence that women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects than are men.

Women who are heavy drinkers are at greater risk of liver disease, damage to the pancreas and high blood pressure than male heavy drinkers. Proportionately more alcoholic women die from cirrhosis than do alcoholic men.

Women have less body water (52 percent for the average woman v. 61 percent for the average man). This means that a man’s body will automatically dilute the alcohol more than a woman’s body, even if the two people weigh the same amount. Women have less of a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol; so, a woman’s body will break down alcohol more slowly than a man’s.

One final note: There is much publicity these days about the therapeutic effect of a daily glass of red wine. This is due to the presence of the plant pigments called “anthrocyanadins”, which are very effective antioxidants in the body. (Scavengers of free-radicals). They are what give red wine its color. Antioxidants protect cells from damage and aging. All red, orange, yellow and green fruits and vegetables also contain other essential nutrients not contained in alcohol.

Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.