By philipedwards, Aug 21 2017 08:35AM
Harms of Alcohol: Liver Disease
The majority of deaths associated with alcohol in England and Wales are caused by alcohol related liver disease1.
Why the liver?
The liver is critical for absorbing energy and nutrients from the things that we eat and drink. However, it is also the key site for detoxification, ie for protecting the human body from potentially harmful substances. After alcohol is absorbed into the blood via the digestive system it migrates to the liver. Because the human body cannot store alcohol it is treated as a poison2. The liver contains specific enzymes which respond quickly to alcohol consumption by breaking alcohol down and removing it from the body. However, large quantities of alcohol can quickly overwhelm the limited enzyme stores and cause blood alcohol levels to rise. This is when an individual would start to feel the psychological effects of alcohol.
The majority of alcohol is metabolised by the liver it is therefore the organ most vulnerable to alcohol damage3.
How serious is the problem?
Quite serious. The liver is a vital organ that can perform miracles daily when we take care of it, keeping us healthy and well. But eventually, repeated assaults from binge drinking and continued alcohol abuse will lead to damage, including cirrhosis and ultimately to liver cancer2. The Guardian reported findings by Sheffield University’s influential Alcohol Research Group that 32,475 alcohol related deaths will be the result of liver cancer, and a further 22,519 from alcoholic liver disease7. This means that on average our best estimate is that c. 30 people will pass away each day as a result of liver damage caused by alcohol abuse.
How does alcohol damage the liver?
In several ways which can build up into a disastrous ‘perfect wave’. Liver disease is partly caused by scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis (scarring). The metabolisation of alcohol competes with that of fat within the liver4. This means that high alcohol consumption over time increases fat deposits in the liver, which can lead to the death of liver cells and subsequent scarring. This scar tissue causes the liver to become less functional so that it no longer performs as it should. With continued abuse, this condition can progress in a vicious circle to cause alcohol related liver disease.
The liver can also become damaged by free radicals which are created by alcohol2. Free radicals are unstable particles which attack molecules nearby and cause them damage.
Remarkably, the body has natural defence agents to tackle these radicals known as antioxidants. However, alcohol reduces the numbers of antioxidants in the liver, making the liver tissue even more vulnerable. Damage to the liver induced by alcohol causes the liver to become inflamed which if uncontrolled can cause further damage2.
How we can ensure an alternative doesn’t damage the liver?
Liver disease is the most likely pathological outcome of persistent chronic alcohol consumption2. It is also the most well-known and widely acknowledged health consequence of drinking alcohol. At Alcarelle we ask if it would not be sensible and desirable to make available alternative adult beverages which would metabolise differently through the liver, not creating dangerous intermediate chemicals that linger in the body in the same way as alcohol?
Research is currently underway at Alcarelle with the aim of developing potential alternatives that would inflict minimal liver damage. Would it not be a wonderful thing for drinks companies to be able to offer consumers safer alternative that also allow us to let our hair down?
1. Office for National Statistics (February 2014), ‘Liver disease biggest cause of alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales’
2. Institute of alcohol studies fact sheet, the health impacts of alcohol, 2016
3. Manzo-Avalos, S., & Saavedra-Molina, A. (2010). Cellular and Mitochondrial Effects of Alcohol Consumption. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 7(12), 4281–4304. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph7124281
4. Patricia E. Molina, Jason D. Gardner, Flavia M. Souza-Smith, Annie M. Whitaker Alcohol Abuse: Critical Pathophysiological Processes and Contribution to Disease Burden, Physiology Published 2014
5. Ringborg U, ‘Alcohol and the risk of cancer’, in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research (1998), Volume 22, 323S–328S
6. The Public Health Burden of Alcohol and the Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Alcohol Control Policies: An evidence review, 2016 Public Heath England
7. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/24/heavy-drinking-will-kill-63000-people-over-next-five-years-doctors-warn