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How Does Alcohol Affect Your Health and Wellbeing?
Alcohol dependence can have profound effects on an individual’s life. It does more than affect a person’s career and relationships, and on a practical level, it can seriously impact overall health and longevity. Long periods of heavy alcohol use are linked to brain and nervous system disease, nutrient deficiencies, and more. Perhaps the most well-established complication of long-term alcohol use is liver disease. An individual who completes a recovery program may go on to receive evidence-based interventions that address nutrition and the importance of self-care in recovery. However, the lingering question remains: can liver damage from alcoholism be reversed?
What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?
When alcohol is consumed it is thought to affect the endogenous opioid system of the brain as well as the GABA-A receptor which is the same receptor affected with the consumption of benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Chronic use of alcohol also has an affect on other neurotransmitters in the brain. These include GABA, Serotonin, glutamate, acetylcholine, and dopamine. Because of the effect alcohol has on the opioid system of the brain, some medications such as Naltrexone are used in the course of medically assisted treatment and show promise in the ability to reduce cravings for alcohol. Naltrexone is the drug that reverses the effects of opioids. Because of the effect alcohol has on the GABA-A receptor, withdrawal from alcohol can be very similar to the withdrawal from drugs such as Xanax or Valium (both benzodiazepines). These withdrawals can include increased blood pressure and pulse, as well as seizures, and, in some cases, death. Lastly, alcohol’s effect on dopamine is thought to contribute to the cravings and dependency that can accompany alcohol use disorder. When the human body repeatedly conditions certain stimuli through the use of alcohol it can release dopamine which then stimulates the reward system which then tells the body to consume more alcohol.
One thing to note, many believe alcohol in and of itself does not make you angry, happy, or sad. It does not create feelings or emotion. It does however bring out one’s true feelings and suppressed emotions. People often refer to an alcohol user as a ‘happy drunk,’ a ‘sad drunk,’ or an ‘angry drunk.’ This is thought by some to not necessarily be the alcohol, but rather the alcohol bringing to the surface what lies within the person.
What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?
Alcohol, although legal and socially acceptable, arguably has the most profound impact on the human body both mentally and physically. Alcohol has an effect on many different organs such as the liver, pancreas, stomach and esophagus. Alcohol use can cause malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies such as low thiamine. Low thiamine is found often in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition that causes mental deterioration, often referred to as ‘wet brain.’
Most notably, alcohol use can have life-threatening effects on the liver. Many alcoholics have an elevated Bilirubin which is responsible for the normal breakdown of red blood cells. Other liver problems are destruction of liver cells and cirrhosis – scarring of the liver. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and affects everything from the liver to the heart. It is thought that alcohol and benzodiazepines are the most common substances of abuse that cause death both during use and during detoxification and withdrawal.
Much time is spent on discussing and researching how alcohol affects the person consuming alcohol. What about it’s Teratogenic effects? Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when an unborn fetus is affected by the mothers consumption of alcohol. Some of the damage caused is slower than normal body growth and development, palpebral fissures, underdeveloped facial bones and a very thin and fine upper lip. Alcohol use during pregnancy can also cause problems later in life for the child such as cognitive issues and maladaptive behaviors.
Common Liver Diseases
The body is an incredible machine that continually focuses on self-regulation. When exposed to alcohol – a toxin – the liver will step in to flush out the excess in an attempt to protect the body from damage. Over time, this process proves taxing for the liver and can lead to damage, from minor disease to permanent scarring. Liver diseases are common in people struggling with alcoholism, and the issue may persist even after a person stops drinking.
Here are some of the most common liver diseases:
Jaundice, the yellowing of the skin or eyes, is the result of excess bilirubin in the body. During the course of normal blood production, the body produces bilirubin excreted by the liver. When the liver sustains damage from alcohol use, it is unable to excrete bilirubin, causing the pigmented substance to build up in the body. People with jaundice may also experience abdominal pain, flu-like symptoms, and fatigue. The presence of jaundice itself is non-life-threatening, but it often signals an underlying issue with the liver itself.
Chronic alcohol use is also associated with hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver. Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Left untreated, it can progress to cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholic Steatohepatitis is a severe form of hepatitis that affects up to 20% of heavy drinkers and can lead to permanent damage and scarring.
Alcoholic Fatty Liver
One of the most common conditions affecting heavy drinkers is Alcoholic Fatty Liver, affecting some 20% of chronic users. It often has no discernable symptoms, but the damage is still occurring within the liver tissues.
The most serious form of alcoholic liver disease is the formation of scar tissue, also known as cirrhosis. This scar tissue makes it difficult for the liver to perform its functions properly. People with cirrhosis may experience inflammation of the liver leading to abdominal pain, fat buildup in the liver cells, redness of the palms, shortening and thickening of the fingers, and more.
Can You Reverse Liver Damage from Alcoholism?
The human body has an amazing capacity to heal itself. At the same time, a limit exists for what it can do. The human body can reverse damage from several types of minor liver damage; however, in some cases, the damage might be permanent. If you can reverse liver damage from alcoholism, it will occur in the earliest stage of dependency. In the case of cirrhosis, for example, you cannot undo the damage that has already occurred. Scarring is permanent, and the liver has lost its previous ability to function normally. However, a healthy lifestyle can help mitigate the risk of further damage.
In other cases, such as fatty liver disease, you can reverse the damage from alcohol. The liver has the benefit of being the body’s only regenerative organ. In fact, if you lost 75% of your liver, it would regenerate to its previous size. When the Alcohol Liver Disease (ALD) is in its early stages, it is possible to heal the liver and restore its functioning completely. Improving liver health will require adherence to a healthy lifestyle and a dedication to feeling your best.
The Pillars of Good Liver Health
If you’re interested in promoting good liver health and reversing any damage from chronic drug and alcohol use, there are a few steps you can take to boost your efforts.
Firstly, and most importantly, stop drinking alcohol. If it is difficult for you to stop drinking, seek help. Evidence-based interventions can help you on your road to addiction recovery. By cutting out alcohol use altogether, you have made the most vital step in helping your liver cells heal and regenerate.
Assess Your Other Unhealthy Behaviors
Drinking is not the only unhealthy behavior that can damage your liver. Other common causes of liver disease include smoking, excess consumption of saturated fats, and obesity. A healthy diet is essential to protecting the health of your liver. If your diet is high in processed fats or sugars, you are putting more stress on the organ as it works to filter out substances your body doesn’t need. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean sources of protein, and whole grains will help your body heal your liver.
Regular, moderate intensity exercise has documented benefits for your liver and other organs. Excess cholesterol is a known risk factor for liver disease, and exercise has the unique benefit of increasing your HDL (“good”) cholesterol while simultaneously lowering your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which boosts your liver health. Additionally, exercise is good for your immune system, which aids in the healing of your liver overall.
Talk to Your Doctor about Your Medications
Certain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), can be harmful for your liver when taken in excess or for long periods. Talk to your primary care provider about the medications you take and how they can affect your liver health.
Be Aware of Your Risk
Exposure to toxins in common household and industrial items such as aerosols, insecticides, and chemicals can also increase your risk of liver damage. If you are in a profession that regularly handles these substances, take precautions such as wearing a mask and gloves. Limit exposure to household toxins and choose safer alternatives when feasible.
Drink Plenty of Water
Chronic dehydration is a common problem in those who suffer from alcohol dependence. The body needs water to effectively flush toxins from the body, and alcohol inhibits the production of an antidiuretic hormone the body needs to reabsorb water. Dehydration also makes the blood thicker, which makes it more difficult for the liver to perform its functions, in turn making it work harder.
Drinking plenty of water seems to have the opposite effect. Water helps keep your blood thin and helps your body absorb nutrients. Drinking at least 64 ounces of water each day can help improve your body’s ability to filter toxins and heal itself.
Vitamins for Liver Health
You might be wondering how to reverse liver damage from alcohol naturally and more effectively. Lifestyle changes are the most important, but some evidence suggests that certain vitamins can improve your liver health.
Vitamin A and Vitamin B-12
Vitamin A is an antioxidant, but it also has a synergistic effect with iron. When Vitamin A levels are low, it can affect the body’s iron levels, which in turn can lead to anemia. An anemic person may have trouble healing because of the lack of nutrients in the bloodstream. However, people with a history of liver disease should discuss supplementation with a health provider, as too much can have a toxic effect on the liver that leads to scarring.
It’s common for those with alcohol use disorders to suffer from nutrient deficiencies, particularly since those with alcohol use disorder likely use alcoholic drinks as their main source of calories. Vitamin B12 is commonly found in meats, eggs, and other sources of protein such as nuts. B12 deficiency – anemia – can affect your body’s ability to transport oxygenated blood throughout the body, leading to decreased immune system functioning and slowed regeneration. Since B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, it is safe to take as a supplement, but it should be under the guidance of a health care provider.
How Long Does It Take the Liver to Regenerate?
The liver is a vital organ that has the ability to heal itself, even after years of heavy drinking. In the event that 50-60% of the liver cells die, then it should be able to regenerate within 30 days. However, it’s important to recognize that good liver health is an ongoing effort that requires adherence to a healthy lifestyle.
In some cases, the liver cannot regenerate on its own. When Alcohol Liver Disease progresses to cirrhosis, it leads to scarring and the tissue becomes permanently damaged. Cirrhotic liver tissue cannot regenerate. However, following a healthy lifestyle can help minimize symptoms and improve overall life quality.
The single most important thing you can do to protect your liver is to cut out all forms of alcohol. If you or a loved one suffer from alcohol dependency, Family First offers evidence-based alcohol abuse intervention.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Along with the direct effect alcohol has on the brain, one of the most damaging is the malnutrition that comes with the body’s other organs and cardiovascular system being affected, reducing the ability to bring adequate nutrition and blood flow to the brain. Gastrointestinal problems caused by alcohol consumption lead to an unhealthy diet and poor absorption of nutrients. The two most common effects of this are Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and Alcoholic Pellagra. Wernicke-Korsakoff is caused by vitamin deficiencies, most notably, thiamine. It is thought that thiamine deficiencies are responsible for much of the cognitive and mental deficiencies one faces with excessive alcohol use.
Alcohol Pellagra is caused by a nicotinamide deficiency. This vitamin deficiency is thought to affect the thyroid gland. The thyroid is responsible for many things and can cause many side effects that appear as mental illness such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, and brain fog. Many people who do not disclose their alcohol consumption with their doctor may have many of the problems associated with an affected thyroid misdiagnosed as something that it is not.
Alcohol consumption damages brain cells and causes a loss of matter or volume in the brain. As you consume alcohol, you create deficiencies in nutrition and vitamin intake. As a result, your brain suffers and you increasingly reduce brain functioning. The effects of alcohol consumption on the cardiovascular system can cause a decrease in blood flow to the brain, resulting in loss of brain matter and volume which can decrease your ability to retain your cognitive abilities. Many studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption does contribute to a shrinking brain.
Alcohol can affect many parts of the brain and body such as serotonin and the thyroid. When either of these two things are affected, it can have a profound effect on behavior. Many people neglect to tell their primary physician about any alcohol consumption. A diagnosis is only as accurate as the person providing information. Behavioral changes can come from so many different areas when alcohol is consumed. Damaging of the digestive system can cause nutrition deficiencies that lead to cognitive deterioration. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to aggression, compulsive behavior, and even suicide.
Alcohol induced hallucinations are rare and they do happen. The majority of hallucinations are auditory and are often confused with delirium tremens that often occur during withdrawal. Because of the significant impact alcohol has on the body, it is unclear as to what causes the hallucinations. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes damage to many areas of the body, such as cardiovascular, organ damage, and nutritional deficiencies. Hallucinations are also thought to happen during hangovers when the alcohol user has become dehydrated and has depleted their bodies of nutrients while not getting adequate sleep. Other causes are thought to come from inflammation in the brain that causes a headache.
Alcohol has an effect on the brain similar to opioids and benzodiazepines. In addition, alcohol also affects dopamine. Over time your brain is trained to feel rewarded with alcohol consumption. The reward your brain seeks becomes primary and other human needs become secondary. The dependency of alcohol takes front-and-center priority and physical, mental, financial, spiritual, as well as emotional health take a back seat.
Withdrawal and Detoxification
Alcohol withdrawal and alcohol detoxification is very dangerous. Alcohol use affects several of the brain’s neurotransmitters and has an effect on the brain similar to benzodiazepines and opioids. Benzodiazepines are often used to help with withdrawal symptoms caused by alcohol use and Naltrexone, an opioid antagonist that blocks the effects of opioids, is sometimes used to reduce alcohol cravings. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include increased blood pressure and pulse, hallucinations, delirium tremens, anxiety, seizures and death. Alcohol detox is not something you want to try and do yourself at home. If you are detoxing from alcohol use, it is suggested you seek medical attention immediately.
Five Evidence-Based Alcohol Abuse Intervention
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy is an evidence-based treatment that can be very effective in the treatment of alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use causes many cognitive distortions. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps correct maladaptive learning processes that have developed and contribute to alcohol use.
12 Step Facilitation – Yes, groups like Alcohol Anonymous are effective evidenced based treatments for alcohol use disorder. In fact, some studies have shown 12 step facilitation having an overall greater impact on continued abstinence and sobriety than cognitive behavioral therapy.
Adjunctive Pharmacotherapy – Medications such as Naltrexone have shown to reduce cravings in a number of patients with alcohol use disorder. Alcohol has similar effects on the brain to opioids. Medically assisted treatment shows greater efficacy when used in conjunction with other treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and 12 step facilitation.
Motivational Interviewing – MI is a strategy used by clinicians to help the patient with alcohol use disorder see the need for change. When facilitated effectively, motivational interviewing can help the patient move on from the contemplation stage of change into the stages of preparation, action, and maintenance.
Relapse Prevention is designed to assist the patient in recognizing high-risk behaviors and situations that can potentially lead to relapse. Relapse prevention techniques often include acquiring healthy coping skills to help a substance user navigate through any challenges they may face. Relapse prevention discussion and strategy is often discussed during one’s stay in treatment and again as part of their discharge planning.