ALCOHOL AND YOUR LIVER
WHAT IS ALCOHOL?
Alcohol is often understood in terms of the beverages we drink; beer, wine and spirits. But these drinks are made up of lots of different chemicals including water, sugar and alcohol. The alcohol refers to the chemical ethanol. Ethanol is created when yeasts ferment the sugar in fruits, vegetables or grains. It’s the ethanol that is the drug component which causes you to feel relaxed or intoxicated.
WHAT DOES THE BODY DO WITH IT?
Once you have an alcoholic drink, there are several chemical processes that take place before the alcohol (ethanol) is completely eliminated from the body.
First, a small amount of alcohol is absorbed from the mouth and by the tongue into the bloodstream and the rest of the drink travels down into the stomach where it’s digested like food. The sugars are broken down and then travel into the intestine. The alcohol moves directly from the stomach into the blood stream. Once the alcohol is in the bloodstream, it travels throughout the body effecting different tissues, like the brain.
Because alcohol is a toxin, your body tries to break it down and get rid of it. This is where the liver steps in.
As the blood passes through the filtering system of the liver, the liver cells convert the alcohol into another chemical called acetaldehyde. This is a very toxic and reactive chemical which can cause damage to the liver and to other tissues in the body. Luckily the acetaldehyde is broken down very quickly into acetate, which is used as an energy source by the body.
Your liver can only process ethanol and acetaldehyde at a particular rate. So, if you consume a lot of alcohol in a short space of time the ethanol and acetaldehyde will build up in the bloodstream and have a greater influence on the brain and other tissues. This is what causes you to feel lightheaded or intoxicated when you’re drinking.
ALCOHOL AND LIVER DISEASE
In order to detoxify your body from the alcohol and acetaldehyde, your liver is putting itself in the firing line. The liver is like the firefighter, going into a burning house to put out the fire.
As a result, the liver is more likely to experience damage. When we persistently ask the liver to do this process by drinking large amounts of alcohol, we are putting it at a greater risk of disease.
Even if you are not drinking heavily or your liver disease hasn’t been caused by alcohol, detoxifying the alcohol in your blood is giving your liver extra work, on top of its other jobs like producing bile to breakdown fats, storing iron, managing cholesterol, helping control blood sugar levels and many, many more.
If you have been diagnosed with advanced liver disease or cirrhosis, it is recommend that you stop drinking alcohol completely. This is because even a small amount of alcohol can increase the risk of disease progression and complications.
HOW CAN I REDUCE THE IMPACT OF ALCOHOL ON MY LIVER?
We encourage you to visit the NHMRC website which provides detailed recommendations on alcohol intake and includes resources available to apply them in daily life.
Take a break
The liver has the incredible ability to heal itself when given the chance. Taking a break from drinking alcohol can lessen the liver’s workload so that it can focus on rebuilding and repairing damaged cells.
How long you take a break for is up to you. Some people have a ‘dry’ month, or they join their pregnant partners for a pause of several months. Some people decide to take a year off drinking alcohol.
Whatever the length of time, your liver is likely to benefit, and it can help to challenge some of the habits and social routines we develop with long-term alcohol consumption. It might feel a bit uncomfortable, but it’s outside our comfort zone where we learn the most about ourselves.
Have a few alcohol-free days
Even a day without alcohol can give your liver a break. Planning a few nights a week to be alcohol free can be a great habit for long-term liver health.
If having a beer or a wine at a particular time of day has become a habit, there are lots of non-alcoholic alternatives that have become available in the last 5 years. While these drinks may still contain sugar and energy, the absence of the alcohol is what helps the liver to have a break.
Infused mineral water
Alcohol free gin
Zero alcohol beers
Put a cap on it
Often, if you have good intentions not to drink or not to drink too much, you can still be swayed by the social situation, the environment, or the circumstances. This is particularly true if you’re vague about how much you are planning to drink.
If you say ‘I won’t have too much’ or ‘I’ll drink less this week’, it’s hard to articulate exactly what that means. Then when someone offers you another drink or tops up your glass, it’s very hard to say no.
Clearly articulating your limit with alcohol can make it a lot easier to stick to in the moment.
No more than ‘x’ number of drinks in a night
No more than ‘x’ number of drinks in a week
Eat and drink together
If you are eating food and drinking water while you’re drinking alcohol, this can help to reduce the amount of alcohol that’s absorbed into the bloodstream and slow it’s rate of absorption, which can help your liver to deal with the workload. You could try:
Having some wholegrain crackers and cheese with your beer
Saving your wine to have with dinner
Alternating between an alcoholic drink and a non-alcoholic drink
Serving cocktails with nibbles
Ordering an entrée when you order a drink at the bar
How you can reduce or quit alcohol
If you are struggling with reducing your alcohol intake or want to learn more about striking the right balance with alcohol for your liver, talk to your doctor. It can be hard to talk about, but your GP is there to help. If you don't have a doctor you feel you can talk to about your alcohol use, you can find a support service here.
You may have been told to reduce your alcohol intake for your liver, but have you ever wondered why? Have you ever been curious about what’s happening in your body when you have a glass of wine or a beer?
Content provided by our partners at The Healthy Eating Clinic
The information in this article is presented by the Liver Foundation for the purpose of disseminating health information free of charge for the benefit of the public. The information accords with the Australian Guide to Health Eating provided by the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council. While the Liver Foundation has exercised due care in ensuring the accuracy of the information contained in this article, the information in the article is made available on the basis that the Liver Foundation is not providing professional advice and the information must not be a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this article 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. The Liver Foundation does not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information provided in this article. The Liver Foundation cannot guarantee and assumes no legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, currency, completeness or interpretation of the information.