The holiday season was filled with food and drinks at celebratory gatherings. But now that the New Year is here it’s time to start putting those resolutions into practice.
Are you thinking about participating in “Dry January” by abstaining from alcohol this month? If so, you can benefit both physically and emotionally from skipping the booze. It isn’t just good for your liver — you will sleep better, have more energy, lower your risk of heart and liver disease, boost your mood, and improve your brain health after a month of saying: “No, thanks.”
Laurel Hartwell, MD, a gastroenterologist at Summit Health who specializes in treating diseases of the liver discusses what you should know about alcohol intake and liver disease. While Dry January can be a great opportunity to reset your system, she encourages patients to practice moderation throughout the entire year.
How do I know if I have alcohol-related liver disease? What are the symptoms?
“One of the real problems about having early warning symptoms of liver disease is that most of the time you don’t know until you’ve done a significant amount of damage to the liver. Drinking alcohol in large quantities on a regular basis can lead to significant liver injury,” says Dr. Hartwell.
The first obvious signs of alcoholic liver disease can be:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Swelling of the abdomen and legs
- Upper abdominal pain
- Alcohol-related hepatitis
Another way you might know if you have a problem with your liver is through routine blood work where your liver chemistry is checked. Your gastroenterologist or primary care physician will recognize any red flags in your blood work and ask about your lifestyle habits. It is very important to be honest with your physician when asked about your drinking history so you can get a true diagnosis.
Preventing liver disease — moderation is key
The key to avoiding liver disease is really in prevention, specifically, not drinking excessively and on a regular basis. It is generally advised that the drinking parameter for men is no more than 14 alcoholic drinks per week, whether that’s a glass of wine, beer, or a shot of liquor. Alcohol recommendations for women are different, as it is typically recommended that they have no more than seven alcoholic drinks of any kind per week. However, there is growing evidence that even this amount of drinking may cause liver damage and it is best to keep alcohol use as low as possible. Most important, drinking in moderation and not to excess is essential in avoiding permanent liver damage.
Are there medications that might ease the symptoms?
Dr. Hartwell explained, “if someone does have some damage from alcohol the main treatment is not to drink.” We do have treatments for what we would call severe alcohol hepatitis but those are people who typically require hospitalization. Those patients have severe illnesses and can have up to a 50% mortality rate. For typical alcohol-related liver damage, the main treatment is removing the toxin, which means reducing or eliminating alcohol intake entirely.
Drinking alcohol during the holiday season vs. chronic drinking
Having a little more spirits than usual during the holiday season is probably not going to do any liver damage. It’s more chronic, sustained, ongoing drinking over as little as two months that is going to lead to liver issues. In most cases, with chronic alcohol use or abuse, you may not feel any symptoms at all until you have advanced damage. Plus, drinking heavily while using medications like Tylenol or other over-the-counter medications can compound liver injury.
Alcoholism, binge drinking, and mental health
Alcoholism is defined by a psychological and physical dependency on alcohol and the inability to control the urge to have a drink or to moderate intake. Alcoholism can also have a genetic component that increases the chances that a person may abuse alcohol.
Binge drinking is more common among people in their 20s, who may have eight or nine drinks in one sitting and repeat that behavior over the course of a weekend or while on vacation. This behavior can potentially cause liver damage if it occurs frequently.
In addition to alcoholism and binge drinking, it’s important to mention mental health and alcohol consumption. Some people drink heavily to self-medicate an underlying mental health issue such as depression or anxiety.
The good news about your liver
“The liver is a very resilient organ, having the ability to repair itself if scarring and cirrhosis have not developed,” says Dr. Hartwell. “Behavior modification and drinking less is the major factor that will restore, regenerate, and allow you to maintain a healthy liver.”