Alcohol dependence can have a profound effect on an individual’s life. It does more than affect a person’s career and relationships; on a practical level, it can seriously impact overall health and longevity. Long periods of heavy alcohol use is 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. When an affected individual completes a recovery program, they may receive evidence-based interventions that address nutrition and the importance of self-care in recovery. However, the lingering question remains: can you reverse liver damage from alcoholism?
Common Liver Diseases
The body is an incredible machine that continually focuses on self-regulation. When it is 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, or 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 that the liver excretes. When the liver sustains damage from alcohol use, it is unable to excrete the bilirubin, leading 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 can affect 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, or 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 the 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 the road to 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 anti-diuretic 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.