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Liver and alcohol diagram

How quickly the liver can repair itself

Alcohol consumption and liver health is a fine balance – you don’t have to become a teetotaler to stay healthy, but you should be aware of how alcohol affects one of the most important organs of the body and what you can do to keep it healthy.

Alcohol affects men and women differently

The digestion of alcohol is different for men and women because men have a higher concentration of dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol.

“When alcohol, or ethanol, reaches the liver, the cells of the liver have enzymes that help with the digestion and processing of alcohol,” explains Lance Stein, M.D., a transplant hepatologist at Piedmont Transplant. “When alcohol then reaches the blood, that’s when you feel the effects of alcohol.”

How the body processes alcohol

There is no denying alcohol is a toxin to the liver, says Dr. Stein.

“As the liver is processing alcohol, it can damage the liver’s enzymes, which can lead to cell death,” he says. “As with any damage to any cell of any organ, there is always a process of healing.”

The liver’s healing process

One of the most incredible facts about the liver is that it is self-healing, just like your skin. For example, if you cut yourself, the wound eventually scabs over as it heals and possibly leaves you with a scar.

The same process happens in the liver. As cells die, scar tissue develops. This is known as liver cirrhosis. If excessive alcohol use and scarring continues over time, eventually the liver can become too scarred to function properly.

Some alcohol-related liver damage can be reversed if you stop drinking alcohol early enough in the disease process. Healing can begin as early as a few days to weeks after you stop drinking, but if the damage is severe, healing can take several months.

In some cases, “if the damage to the liver has been long-term, it may not be reversible,” warns Dr. Stein.

How much alcohol is too much?

“It’s important to know what you’re drinking because when people mix their own drinks, they’re often using more than the recommended amount,” says Dr. Stein. “They think they’re drinking one drink, but they’re actually having two or three.”

One serving of alcohol looks like:

  • 12 ounces of beer

  • 5 to 6 ounces of wine

  • 1.5 to 2 ounces of hard liquor

The bottom line is that moderate alcohol use – no more than two to three drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women – should be acceptable and you should not expect any long-term damage.

People who drink more heavily should be concerned and should seek medical counseling for assessment of whether they need assistance with stopping alcohol use or if they have any damage as a result of long-term alcohol use," says Dr. Stein.

Learn more about liver health.

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