Liver Damage From Alcohol: The Binge Drinking Connection

Recent research shows occasional binge drinking increases risk of liver disease.

Posted Sep 24, 2018

In 2016, liver disease was noted as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. [1]

So what brings on alcohol-related liver disease?

Is your weekend binge-drinking a problem for your health? After all, it’s not like you’re drinking every night, right? You may be surprised to learn that the relationship between alcohol consumption and liver disease is a little more nuanced, and much stronger, than you might have thought.

It’s no surprise that alcohol abuse can lead to liver damage. But, liver disease and cirrhosis have long been associated with the stereotypical drinking behavior of “alcoholics.” You know, those dysfunctional people who drink a bottle of vodka every single night because they can’t do without it. Not people like you, right?

What if I were to tell you that just a few big drinking weekends in a row can do irreparable damage to your liver?

It’s true.

The latest research on alcohol tells us that binge-drinking is a big risk factor for liver disease. Deaths caused by liver disease and cirrhosis have increased by at least fifty percent in the past two decades, and some states (Kentucky, California, and Louisiana were the top three) experienced double-digit increases! [1]. As of 2016, there were 3.9 million adults in the United States with diagnosed liver disease and 40,326 recorded deaths. [2] That’s a shocking number of people who are dying from a disease that is preventable!

Is binge drinking bad for your health?

Firstly, what is binge drinking? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking behavior is deemed binge drinking if, within a two-hour period, a man consumes five or more drinks, or a woman four or more drinks [2]. Binge-drinking tends to be more common in men than women, and more common in those who are well-educated and earn a decent annual salary. Gotta have money to pay for all those drinks!

Is downing a few drinks in a couple of hours really that bad for your health? Yes, and here’s why: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) examined the effects of binge-drinking on the liver function of mice. Their findings are very interesting indeed!

It took only seven weeks of occasional binge drinking to harm the liver. The damage was more significant than moderate daily drinking. And, in just 21 sessions of binge-drinking, the mice were found to have early-state liver disease.

In adults, this means that less than six months of weekend binge-drinking may pose serious long-term liver problems (thank goodness spring break doesn’t last that long!). [3]

Why your liver is a VITAL organ

The liver is an organ that’s responsible for transforming and storing important nutrients in the body. Put simply, whatever you eat or drink passes through liver which filters the matter to ensure no toxic substances enter or stay in the body.

So, what happens when your liver no longer functions effectively? If you develop liver disease, then the organ will not filter as it is meant to. Some people show symptoms such as abdominal pain and swelling, a tendency to bruise easily, yellowing of the skin or eyes, dark urine, bloody stool, chronic fatigue, nausea, appetite loss, itchy skin, fluid retention in the legs and hormonal disruptions.

In many instances, liver failure may not be reversible, and tends to be managed rather than cured. If you feel concerned about your liver functioning, speak to your doctor as soon as you can and find out what blood tests can help identify liver inflammation and dysfunction.

Is binge-drinking to blame for liver disease?

It sure looks like it plays an important role. An observational study of deaths in the United States between 1999-2016 has identified rapidly increasing deaths due to liver disease. And it’s not in the over 65 age group, which dominated the mortality stats in this domain prior to 2010. This latest research surprisingly identifies a significant rate of change in mortality in young people aged 25-34. The data suggests these deaths are due to alcohol-related liver disease.

Does this mean young people are drinking more than ever before? We know that college-aged adults (can we call them that?!) are some heavy drinkers… According to the CDC, binge drinking is most common in adults aged 18-34 years. One in six adults in the United States binge drinks about four times a month, consuming, on average, seven drinks per binging session. When you look at these stats alongside the research I mentioned earlier about the mice who develop liver disease in just 21 binging sessions, you can see why this is a real worry, at least for those one in six adults!

It is important to understand that all of this research is based on survey data that estimates risk based on large groups of collected individuals. These studies do not create a direct link between the cause of liver cancer and alcohol, but rather estimate it based on associations. As always, additional unknown or uncontrolled for variables could be affecting these associations such as underlying medical problems, genetic vulnerabilities, or other aspects of the environment that are increasing liver toxicity and damage. Given the ongoing conversations about everything from compromised water sources to hormones in food and environmental toxins, I wouldn’t ignore additional factors here.

How can you look after your liver if you’re not going to stop drinking?

Binge drinking and alcohol-related liver disease are a serious public health problem, but it’s preventable! So, let’s get into some of the solutions!

How can you drink alcohol (if you don’t want to just stop) without doing long-term damage to your liver?

1.     The first tip is all about prevention. Keep your body healthy by drinking at least eight glasses of water per day to stay hydrated and help the liver flush out all those bad toxins. Many of you reading this right now are actually dehydrated on a regular basis. Go get some water! You should also engage in some form of exercise daily—approximately 30 minutes per day—and eat a balanced diet. This will all make sure that your liver is functioning at top form (and it will likely reduce some of your drinking as well – it’s something we work on a lot in the IGNTD program).

2.     When you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. That means just one drink for women, and 1-2 drinks for men per day. If you are drinking alcohol, ensure you drink plenty of water too – just alternate drinks. This will allow your liver to better process the alcohol and reduce damage.

3.     Don’t mix medications with alcohol—this includes the contraceptive pill—as it can either reduce the effectiveness of your medication, or you may experience an adverse reaction. It also greatly taxes your liver as enzymes struggle with more chemicals to break down.

4.     If you do consume a large number of drinks in one sitting, try to abstain from drinking for the next few days to allow your liver a chance to recover. Remember that your liver’s job is to clear toxins and alcohol is a toxin. Give it time to do its work and you’ll have more weekends to hang with your friends and drink over your lifespan.

5.     Finally, get outside help if binge drinking is causing problems in your everyday life. Speak to your doctor, or look for a recovery program that will fit your individual circumstances. This is why reducing drinking is so incredibly important even if you don’t want to stop!

Next time you go out for a ‘big night,’ remember that a heavy drinking occasion can cause long-term damage, and act accordingly – taking these measures can go a long way towards making sure that you are NOT one of those people who end up needing medical attention for severe liver problems. And no matter how much fun you might have blacking out on that couch with your friends, it’s probably not worth the pain of a liver biopsy.

Copyright 2018 Adi Jaffe

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References

1.      Tapper, E. B., & Parikh, N.D. (2018). Mortality due to cirrhosis and liver cancer in the United States, 1999-2016: Observational study. BMJ. Sourced from: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2817 

2.      Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (October 6, 2016). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sourced from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/liver-disease.htm

3.      Wegner, S.A., Pollard, K. A., Kharazia, V., Darevsky, D., Perez, L., Roychowdhury, S., Xu, A., Ron, D., Nagy, L.E., & Hopf, F. W. (2017). Limited excessive voluntary alcohol drinking leads to liver dysfunction in mice. Alcoholism: Clinical and experimental research. Sourced from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/acer.13303