For most people, the fact that alcohol damages the liver is common knowledge. What many people aren’t aware of, however, is just how much alcohol consumption will cause the liver to become overwhelmed and impaired. This article will cover what you need to know about liver damage, prevention, and treatment, and how to find the support you need to cut back on drinking.
Alcohol-Related Liver Disease
There are three primary stages of alcohol-related liver damage: fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Understanding these three conditions can help contextualize the range of liver damage, and when each stage occurs.
Fatty Liver Disease
As the name suggests, this condition is characterized by a buildup of fat on the liver. Fatty liver disease may not cause serious health problems, and often doesn’t even present symptoms. It’s also reversible in the absence of alcohol. Nevertheless, it may serve as a warning sign that your relationship with alcohol has become unhealthy, and can be a precursor to more serious conditions. Taking steps to reduce or eliminate your alcohol intake can give the liver time to heal and remove the excess fat deposits. If left untreated, alcoholic fatty liver disease will often progress to alcoholic hepatitis.
Metabolizing alcohol generates toxic chemicals that can create inflammation in the liver. When the liver becomes inflamed, it results in alcoholic hepatitis. While this disease is also reversible, it’s more serious and may bring significant health consequences. Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include jaundice, bleeding, and fever. Hepatitis also increases the risk of gallstones and liver cancer. In addition to cutting out alcohol, certain steroid medications may be able to help treat the inflammation.
With extended alcohol use, healthy liver tissue becomes replaced by atrophied, or thinning scar tissue. When this scar tissue begins to build up on your liver, it impedes normal liver function and is categorized as cirrhosis. While this condition is irreversible, abstinence and various medications may be able to slow the progression. If cirrhosis goes untreated, it leads to liver failure, at which point the only treatment is liver transplant.
How Long Does it Take to Damage Your Liver with Alcohol?
It depends! Even short periods of drinking can lead to some form of liver disease, but it typically takes several years for permanent damage to occur. Now that we’ve broken down the three forms of liver disease, let’s dive into the typical timelines for each:
Fatty Liver Disease: Alcoholic fatty liver disease develops in 90% of people who drink more than 40g—roughly four drinks—of alcohol a day.⁵ Compared to other conditions, fatty liver disease can develop relatively quickly: anywhere from several months to a couple years after continued unhealthy drinking. Fat deposits on the liver can even begin to show after just a few days of heavy drinking.
Alcoholic Hepatitis: Hepatitis generally occurs when a person consumes three or four drinks a day over an extended period of time. Typically, this means roughly five years, though the exact amount of time is different for everyone. One study found that the onset of alcoholic hepatitis could vary greatly from three months to 36 years, but it was not uncommon for it to present itself after just one year of excessive drinking.
Alcoholic Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is the most severe form of liver disease and tends to develop in those who drink heavily over a longer period of time. Again, the exact amount of time varies, but the typical timeline is 10 years or more of excessive drinking. Studies show 50% of men who drink ten or more servings a day for 20 years will develop alcoholic cirrhosis.²
How Much Do You Have to Drink to Damage Your Liver?
The liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time —about one standard drink per hour— and any amount of alcohol consumption that exceeds that limit can tax the liver and cause damage. This is why behaviors like binge drinking can cause liver complications, even if the amount of alcohol consumed isn’t considered ‘excessive’.
The good news is, abstaining from alcohol will give your liver time to heal, remove fat deposits, and reduce inflammation. Even for people diagnosed with cirrhosis—a condition that is not curable—abstaining from alcohol will often help slow the progression of the disease.
Signs of Liver Damage From Drinking
While not all forms of liver disease present symptoms, these are some of the most commonly observed symptoms when they do occur:
- Dark urine color
- Pale stool color
- Chronic fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Itchy skin
- Swelling of the legs and ankles
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Jaundice (skin and eyes that appear yellowish in color)
Risks of Liver Damage from Years of Drinking
One of the greatest risks of liver damage from alcohol use is alcoholic cirrhosis. As mentioned, this condition is not reversible and can lead to liver failure, where the liver has so much scar tissue it cannot function properly. Only 50% of people with advanced cirrhosis will live more than five years, but complete abstinence can help slow the progression.
Liver damage can also lead to various other health complications, such as liver cancer, heart and lung complications, and abdominal infection and swelling. Meeting with a physician specialized in treating alcohol use can help you better understand your drinking habits and associated risks. At Monument, your physician will provide a judgment-free environment for you to share openly and honestly, and provide actionable steps to help improve your liver health.
Can You Reverse Liver Damage From Prolonged Alcohol Use?
In many cases, yes! The liver is a relatively resilient organ capable of repairing itself as long as the damage has not been too severe. The liver can often heal itself alongside a change in diet, exercise, and drinking patterns. Perhaps the best way to visualize liver damage is by thinking of your skin if it were to suffer a sunburn: if this is the first time you’ve gone to the beach without sunblock, your skin should be able to heal itself effectively. On the other hand, if you’ve been taking in the sun for two hours a day for the past ten years, your skin’s ability to recover will diminish.
It’s important to take steps to improve liver health before liver damage becomes an irreversible condition, like alcoholic cirrhosis. Here is a list of some things that have been effectively shown to help reverse liver damage.
1. Avoid Alcohol
If you’ve been diagnosed with any form of liver disease, the single best thing you can do for your liver is to stop drinking completely. If that’s not immediately possible, cutting back as much as you can is the next best thing. That said, studies have shown that even light and infrequent alcohol consumption makes it more likely for liver disease to progress.⁴ It’s important that you speak to a healthcare provider to ensure you have a plan to safely cut back. For some, quitting alcohol cold turkey can present risk of alcohol withdrawal.
Lack of physical activity has been directly linked to the severity of fatty liver disease, regardless of body weight. Evidence has shown that both aerobic and resistance exercises reduce fat content in the liver, with aerobic exercises being slightly more effective. Even a little bit of exercise a day—if done consistently—can have a significant impact.³
Avoiding fatty, overly-processed, and sugary foods is a good idea not only for your liver but your overall health as well. Eating these foods can make it harder for your liver to do its job, and when your liver is already recovering from alcohol-related damage, it only slows the healing process.
On the flipside, there are several foods that help with liver repair. Good foods for your liver include leafy greens (such as spinach or kale), broccoli (along with other veggies), oatmeal, coffee, green tea, blueberries, and most nuts (though almonds have been shown to be particularly beneficial).
The best treatment for any type of liver disease is preventative care. By curbing or eliminating your alcohol consumption before the onset of the disease, you can help prevent your liver from being damaged beyond repair. At Monument, we understand that this path may be difficult and daunting, and we’re here to help. We offer online and affordable treatment options, like alcohol therapy, peer support, and medication to stop drinking.
Learning more about liver damage can be anxiety-inducing at first, but it can also be a powerful motivational factor for making changes and preventing further harm. Our bodies have an amazing capacity to heal, and we all deserve support along the way.
- National Library of Medicine. “Alcohol Consumption in Concomitant Liver Disease: How Much is Too Much?, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5486588/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- Merck Manuals. “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease, https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/liver-and-gallbladder-disorders/alcohol-related-liver-disease/alcohol-related-liver-disease/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The Effects of Physical Exercise on Fatty Liver Disease, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954622/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. “Alcohol consumption and risk of liver cirrhosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6776700/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- University of Texas Medical Branch. “Symptoms and signs of acute alcoholic hepatitis, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124878/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. “The Effects of Physical Exercise on Fatty Liver Disease, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954622/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- Mayo Clinic. “Liver problems – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/liver-problems/symptoms-causes/syc-20374502.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. “Symptoms and signs of acute alcoholic hepatitis, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124878/.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.
- UpToDate. “Patient education: Cirrhosis (Beyond the Basics), https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cirrhosis-beyond-the-basics.” Accessed Oct 27, 2022.