The occasional glass of wine or 1 standard drink is generally harmless, but excessive alcohol intake and alcohol abuse can lead to severe liver damage.
By Adam Koh. In consultation with Dr Kenneth Koo, Director & Senior Consultant, Gastroenterology & Hepatology and Dr Irene Tirtajana, Associate Consultant, Psychiatry.
A little wine or beer can be a good thing. Alcohol helps people relax, so it’s no wonder it is often used as a social lubricant to liven up the mood. Moderate drinking – one standard drink a day for women and up to two standard drinks a day for men – is generally harmless for most healthy people and may impart some health benefits. Red wine, for instance, is good for heart health. However, frequently drinking large amounts of alcohol, or binge drinking, can cause significant damage to the liver.
Related: Alcohol — More than Meets the Eye
In most people, a little alcohol consumption poses no problem. This is because the liver, the body’s ‘chemical plant’, contains special enzymes to break down and neutralise alcohol.
Dr Kenneth Koo, Director and Senior Consultant, Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, explained, “The liver processes alcohol and breaks it down to acetaldehyde.” Excessive alcohol intake means more acetaldehyde is formed. This potentially toxic compound is responsible for many of the side effects of alcohol such as nausea, headaches and flushing.
“Prolonged exposure to acetaldehyde is thought to play a role in the development of alcoholic liver disease, among various other mechanisms,” he added.
This is why long-term alcohol abuse can result in alcoholic liver disease, a spectrum of liver injuries that can range from a relatively mild disease such as fatty liver, to more severe forms of liver inflammation such as alcoholic hepatitis. Alcohol abuse can also lead to the formation of permanent scar tissue in the liver or liver cirrhosis.
Fatty liver occurs when fat accumulates within the liver cells, enlarging and damaging them. If left untreated, fatty liver disease progresses to cirrhosis. This is where liver cells are replaced with fibrous scar tissue.
The build-up of scar tissue impairs the functioning of the liver, causing bodily processes to deteriorate. When the liver fails, the body loses its ability to produce essential biochemicals, store nutrients, detoxify metabolic waste, clot blood and regulate glucose.
Cirrhosis can cause bleeding, retention of fluids, mental confusion, and in some cases, progress to cancer. Apart from liver disease, alcohol abuse can also lead to a myriad of other health problems such as damage to the pancreas, numbness in the hands and feet and heart problems.
Related: Alcohol and Health—Setting Your Drink Limits
While not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop liver disease, alcohol abuse is the most significant risk factor, Dr Koo said. “The risk of cirrhosis increases for men who drink more than 60g to 80g of alcohol a day for more than 10 years.
For women, the risk increases for those who consume more than 20g a day.” The type of alcohol may also influence the risk of developing alcoholic liver disease, he added. He pointed to a study in Denmark that revealed that drinking beer or spirits was more likely to be associated with liver disease than wine drinking.
Having five or more drinks at one sitting for men, or four or more drinks for women – has been shown to increase the risk of alcoholic liver disease. Women are also at higher risk of alcoholic liver disease than men. Other risk factors are smoking, obesity and the existence of liver disease such as chronic viral hepatitis.
Seek help early if you suspect that you or a loved one have a drinking problem and are at risk of alcoholic liver disease. The condition can be diagnosed through a combination of a thorough patient history, physical examination, blood investigations and an ultrasound scan of the liver.
“Once diagnosed, treatment requires a holistic approach involving many healthcare professionals,” said Dr Koo.
“The mainstay of treatment is complete alcohol abstinence. Often this involves healthcare professionals trained in addiction medicine. Nutritional support is also important as many patients with drinking problems are malnourished, and this is associated with a poorer outcome.”
The good news is that for people in the early stages of fatty liver disease, abstaining from alcohol for four to six weeks can reverse the condition. Late-stage disease may require more sustained management such as lifestyle changes, total abstinence and medication. Advanced liver cirrhosis may require a liver transplant for long-term survival.
Related: How Much Is Too Much?
Regular alcohol consumption may result in dependence. Some signs include craving; the need to drink increasing amounts in order to achieve the same effect; and anxiety, sweating, nausea or shaking when abstaining from alcohol. If there are signs of a physical dependence on alcohol, it is safer to quit under medical supervision. If you wish to quit, these are some important steps to take.
Related: Life is Better When You're Sober
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This article was first published in ONEHealth Magazine, 2016 Issue 8
This article was last reviewed on
22 Nov 2023
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