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Stop drinking to stop potentially fatal
alcoholic liver disease

Though long-term alcohol abuse can damage almost every system in the human body,
one of the most common casualties is the liver. Current research on alcoholic liver disease--reviewed in a January 2005 Alcohol Alert from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)--confirms that this condition is a key cause of alcohol-related death.

Liver function is essential to life and freedom from disease. This large, complex organ purifies the body by helping to remove toxins, including excess alcohol. The liver also has an unusual knack for self-repair: It can sometimes regenerate itself by replacing diseased areas with new tissue.

Yet one of the liver's primary duties is to metabolize alcohol, and an excess of this chemical quickly strains the organ's capacity. Even a relatively small amount of alcohol--three drinks in a row--can have toxic effects.

Though alcohol abuse is a key factor in alcoholic liver disease, there are other causes ranging from genetic to demographic to environmental. Ethnic background, race, gender, age, education, income, and a family history of drinking problems can all play a role. Even so, abstinence from alcohol can be enough to reduce or even reverse alcoholic liver disease in its early stages.

Alcoholic liver disease is actually a broad term that includes three different conditions: fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Researchers have traditionally seen these as sequentially related, believing that long-term alcohol abusers usually progress from fatty liver to hepatitis to cirrhosis. Today we know that alcoholics can develop cirrhosis without passing through any signs of hepatitis.

Fatty liver, or steatosis, is the earliest stage of alcohol-induced liver disease. Anyone who drinks heavily for a few days can develop the defining sign of this condition--liver cells that swell with fat globules and water. This condition can be arrested, however, when drinking stops.

Alcoholic hepatitis is a more severe--and potentially fatal--condition that occurs with heavy drinking over longer periods of time. Its hallmark symptom is inflammation of the liver. Other symptoms include abdominal pain and tenderness, fever, jaundice, lack of appetite, mental confusion, nausea, and vomiting.

Some people with alcoholic hepatitis who stop drinking can recover from the disease. Of those who keep drinking, up to 70 percent may progress to cirrhosis.

Liver cirrhosis is the twelfth leading cause of death in the United States and the fourth leading cause of death in people ages 45-54. It permanently damages liver cells, replacing those cells with scar tissue. In this advanced stage of alcoholic liver disease, the organ cannot carry out its normal functions. For drinkers with cirrhosis who progress to liver failure, the only definitive treatment is a liver transplant.

Diagnosing alcoholic liver disease is tricky. Despite its name, the disease can develop in people who are not alcoholic. Diagnosis depends on running laboratory tests and taking a detailed medical history. Yet alcohol abusers often understate or deny their alcohol use.

Treatment for alcoholic liver disease at every stage begins with reducing or abstaining from alcohol. Also necessary for many people are lifestyle changes such as:

According to the NIAAA, some people with alcoholic liver disease may benefit from complementary and alternative treatments for cirrhosis. An example is the dietary supplement S-adenosylmethionine, more widely known as SAMe.

For additional information, you can access the full NIAAA report on alcoholic liver disease by requesting a free copy from the NIAAA Publications Distribution Center, P.O. Box 10686, Rockville, MD 20849-0686.

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