American Osteopathic Association

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Live Longer with a Healthy Liver: Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Woman drinking wineAs more and more celebrities publicly speak about their battles with alcoholism, Americans are becoming familiar with this disease. However, few people understand the long-term health risks of alcohol abuse. One such risk is liver disease.

“Liver disease due to alcohol begins with a severe inflammation of the liver, which is caused by longtime alcohol abuse,” explains Paul Ehrmann, DO, an osteopathic family physician practicing in Royal Oak, Michigan. “The longer the duration of alcohol use and the greater the consumption of alcohol, the more likely you are to develop liver disease.”

Progression of Liver Disease

Dr. Ehrmann further explains that a chief contributor to liver disease in alcoholics is malnutrition. The excessive consumption of alcohol causes a reduced appetite and insufficient absorption of nutrients from the intestinal tract. Subsequently, the increasing amounts of toxins in the liver, along with any genetic and individual factors that predispose the person to liver disease, will fuel the development of the disease. 

After several years of liver inflammation, the disease will progress to the next level, known as cirrhosis. During alcoholic cirrhosis healthy tissue is replaced with scarred tissue which damages the liver and prevents it from working normally. 

At least 10% of people who drink alcohol excessively will develop cirrhosis,” warns Dr. Ehrmann. “Women need to know that they are more vulnerable to this potentially fatal stage of the disease than men.” 

He explains that while alcoholic cirrhosis can develop in a man who consumes five or more alcoholic beverages every day for at least 10 years; women can develop the disease after only three or more drinks daily within the same period 

“The advanced stages of this disease can have serious complications like brain tissue damage and high blood pressure,” says Dr. Ehrmann. 

Warning Signs

While Dr. Ehrmann admits that many of the symptoms associated with this disease do not surface until it is in its advanced stages, he recommends that patients and their families know the potential warning signs which include:

  • Abdominal pain and tenderness

  • Excessive thirst

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Fluid gathering in the abdomen, creating unintentional weight gain

  • Mental confusion

  • Jaundice

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

“Treatment can only begin once patients stop consuming alcohol, which frequently requires an alcohol rehabilitation program or counseling,” explains Dr. Ehrmann. “In addition, the patient will be placed on a high-carbohydrate, high-calorie diet with plenty of vitamin supplements like B1 and folic acid to end the malnutrition.” 

Dr. Ehrmann also warns that if the disease has developed to cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be necessary. 

“I’m not suggesting that people not have a drink, but it must be done in moderation because excessive drinking is associated with a shorter life expectancy,” he says. “To prevent liver disease and other complications of alcoholism, discuss your alcohol intake with your doctor to determine a safe amount of alcohol consumption for you.” 

If a loved one doesn't currently have a physician, consider Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs. They look beyond symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect their patients' wellbeing. They listen and partner with them to help them get healthy and stay well. ​​​​


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