The Connection Between Liver Health and Addiction: The Liver Explained
Why is the liver so important? The simple truth is that your liver is essential to your health throughout your life. This large, reddish-brown organ performs multiple bodily functions that are necessary to live. Consider the following facts:
- The main function of the liver is to filter the blood.
- The liver removes toxins from the body.
- The liver processes food into energy.
- The liver provides essential nutrients to the rest of the body.
- The liver secretes bile to assist with healthy digestion.
- The liver breaks down medications (chemicals) so that the body can quickly use them.
- The liver stores critical vitamins and minerals such as Vitamins A, D, K and B12, and the mineral iron.
The liver is a superstar organ. In fact, it can regenerate itself. Without a healthy liver, you will become very ill. Using alcohol or drugs seriously impairs liver function.
How Alcohol Impairs the Liver
In healthy individuals, the liver functions to break down alcohol so it can be efficiently removed from the body. Your liver can be easily damaged if you drink more alcohol than it can properly process.
Many people in our society may not consider alcohol a drug, but it is. Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of liver disease. In fact, on a global scale, excessive alcohol consumption is the most common cause of cirrhosis.
Long-term excessive alcohol abuse can lead to permanent scarring of the liver, known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is composed of inflammation, death of cells and thickening of tissue in the liver.
Specific Liver Functions Impaired by Alcohol
Specific functions of the liver can become impaired by consuming an excess of alcohol. The following health issues can occur as a result:
- Clotting and increased bruising. The liver is necessary for proper blood clotting factors, so someone with severe cirrhosis bruises easily.
- Fluid retention and swelling. Albumin is a protein made by the liver. It’s responsible for keeping fluid in the blood vessels. If the liver cannot produce enough albumin, the legs, ankles and abdomen can become swollen. This is often referred to as edema, the medical term for swelling.
- Poor immune health. When the liver is overcome by too much alcohol to process for an extended period of time, the result is often liver disease. When the liver cannot perform properly, it decreases the body’s ability to use its natural defenses for immune help. This makes it more difficult to fight off infections.
- Fatigue. Exhaustion is common among people suffering from cirrhosis.
- Variceal bleeding. Cirrhosis can cause a blockage of blood flow through the liver. This then causes increased pressure to other veins throughout the body, causing them to become enlarged and fragile. In rare cases this can cause hemorrhaging and fluid collection in the abdomen.
- Hepatic encephalopathy. When the liver cannot detoxify normally, harmful substances enter the blood stream and can lead to confusion and changes in behavior.
Stages of Liver Disease
Medical professionals diagnose and sort alcohol-relative liver disease into three main categories:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease. The condition of fatty liver disease refers to the earliest stage of liver disease from alcohol-related causes. There are usually no outward symptoms, and if the individual abstains entirely from future alcohol consumption, the damage to the liver can be minimal.
- Alcoholic hepatitis. Hepatitis is classified as liver inflammation. Imperative in the detoxification process, the liver shouldn’t be overloaded with alcohol or drugs. This can lead to inflammation of this essential organ and prevent successful detoxification. It’s estimated that 35 percent of drinkers have alcoholic hepatitis. This type of hepatitis can occur without warning and lead to serious problems, including death.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis. Drinking too much alcohol over an extended period of time can damage the liver so severely that it cannot properly function. This is called cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis is the most advanced type of liver disease caused by alcohol. It permanently scars the liver. It’s not reversible and may lead to liver failure. Between 10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis: Treatment or Cure?
In the United States alone, over 36,000 people die from cirrhosis of the liver – the majority being male. According to recent research, drinking just one or two alcoholic drinks a day is linked to liver disease.
There are several medical-based strategies for treating and managing cirrhosis. The primary goal is to slow the development of scar tissue in the liver and reduce the complications of cirrhosis.
Five Steps to Help Mend an Impaired Liver
Mayo Clinic provides five steps to help avoid liver problems caused by the negative effects of alcohol:
- Abstain from alcohol. Avoid alcohol and consider an alcohol recovery program if additional support is necessary.
- See your doctor for prescription medication. Medications may assist in controlling causes and symptoms of cirrhosis, and possibly slow the progression of certain types of liver cirrhosis. Medications must be monitored by a healthcare professional.
- Eat healthy food. Liver disease affects the way your body uses food and specific foods may support your liver in recovering from alcohol-related damage. For example, some reports claim that garlic can aid in liver cleansing.
- Avoid harmful foods. Avoiding specific foods is just as important. Salt, for example, may be detrimental to the health of the liver. Too much salt can cause your body to retain fluids, causing severe swelling in your abdomen and legs.
- Use over-the-counter pain medication wisely. Read labels, consult your doctor and use only the recommended dose. For example, an overdose of acetaminophen can damage the liver.
Despite suffering from cirrhosis, it’s possible to enjoy a full life while remaining sober.
Is It Possible to Reverse Cirrhosis?
People often want to know if cirrhosis of the liver can be reversed. The liver can replace and rebuild its own damaged cells. It can actually regenerate itself, but only if the liver is healthy.
Once severe scarring of the liver tissue has taken place, it’s very difficult – if not impossible – to reverse the damage. This is a primary reason why it’s vital to follow your medical professional’s guidance to slow down the advancement of scar tissue in the liver.
Currently, no complete cure for cirrhosis exists. Eliminating the causes, however, can sometimes decelerate the disease and manage the health of the liver. Treating the symptoms under medical supervision is the best alternative.
In some circumstances, people with advanced cirrhosis will completely lose liver function. When this happens, and health doesn’t improve with abstinence and medical management, a liver transplant may be needed.
Receiving a transplant is an arduous and lengthy process for those who have abused alcohol. For instance, to be placed on a transplant list, a six-month period of abstinence from alcohol is required for an alcoholic to be accepted into a transplant program.
The Role of Drugs in Liver Disease
Drugs of any type can directly damage the liver or be altered by the liver into chemicals that cause direct or indirect injury to this vital organ.
For example, cholesterol medications, also called statins, commonly cause elevated levels of liver enzymes in the blood, which may lead to liver damage. Adjusting the dose or stopping the statin under the care of a doctor will usually end the threat without permanently damaging the liver.
Prescription and Illicit Drug Abuse
Doctors use the term drug-induced liver injury, or DILI, to refer to any liver damage caused by medications. In order to determine if an individual is experiencing liver health issues, blood tests are usually performed to measure levels of specific liver enzymes.
Every ingested drug and chemical travels through the liver to be broken down and processed. In the case of drug abuse, the liver becomes overloaded with these foreign substances and cannot function properly. The following are known to cause severe liver damage:
- Heroin. Sharing syringes and needles is never a smart choice. In many situations, shooting up heroin, or any drug, can lead to hepatitis through contact with contaminated blood or body fluids already in the needle.
- Inhalants. When breathed in, inhalants produce mind-altering effects. The toxic fumes can result in irreversible kidney and liver damage. Chronic use of inhalants decreases the level of oxygen carried in the blood, directly affecting the liver in its primary purpose of filtering toxins from the blood.
- Steroids. Regardless of your age, abusing steroids can lead to liver cancer. Abuse of anabolic steroids has frequently been indicated in liver damage and certain liver cancers, and long-term abuse has been linked to the development of hepatic liver tumors.
- Opiates. Codeine, Vicodin, Morphine and OxyContin are potent medications that are legally prescribed for treating pain. Unfortunately, opiate prescriptions are highly addictive. Abuse of these painkillers has been linked to acute liver injury. If the liver is bombarded with abnormal use of prescription painkillers, toxins may not be released and instead will be stored in the liver.
- Acetaminophen. Common prescription painkiller medicines like Vicodin and Percocet also contain high dosages of acetaminophen, known by the brand name Tylenol. When these pills are abused, high levels of acetaminophen enter the body and overload the liver. The result can be liver failure.
Liver Failure and Acetaminophen
A multitude of published studies have shown that ongoing high levels of acetaminophen are a common cause of the sudden appearance of jaundice, liver failure or both.
In 2013, Tylenol faced 85 personal injury lawsuits for liver injuries and deaths. Bottles of Tylenol now contain a warning that clearly states that the drug contains acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage if taken inappropriately.
An FDA physician stated, “Overdose from prescription combination products containing acetaminophen account for nearly half of all cases of acetaminophen-related liver failure in the U.S., many of which result in liver transplant or death.”
Medical professionals warn that when OxyContin, Morphine or other opioids are used in combination with acetaminophen on a consistent basis, there’s an even greater risk for liver disease.
Comprehensive Recovery Plans for Managing Liver Health and Addiction
The process of rehabilitation is an extremely unique and individualized experience. Each person brings their own past experiences, health concerns, stress triggers and life lessons when they enter a recovery program for addiction.
At 12 Keys Rehab we have worked with clients who suffer from various illnesses, whether they are related to their addiction or not. Our clients benefit from one-on-one care, as we accept only approximately 24 clients at a time. Our highly qualified professional staff is skilled in treating the multi-faceted components of healing from an addiction.
Our comprehensive facility provides opportunities to engage in the process of recovery within a tranquil environment filled with options to nourish your soul. We provide a balanced program that includes exercise and outdoor activities, while you complete the work necessary to lead a sober and healthy life.
During recovery, we also focus on science, spirit, body and family. We believe these components are the path to success now and in the future. After you complete your in-house therapy at 12 Keys Rehab, we will continue to support your efforts to stay sober through aftercare programs.
At 12 Keys Rehab, we will support your journey to a sober fulfilling life. Contact us today to learn more about our recovery options.