Alcoholic liver disease, also known as alcohol-related liver disease, is a collective term for a group of related liver illnesses sometimes found in people who habitually drink in excessive amounts. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a group of Italian researchers looked at the connection between these illnesses and the presence of a harmful, partially natural body process called oxidative stress. These researchers concluded that high levels of this stress in people affected by alcoholism can lead to the onset of alcoholic liver disease.
Alcoholic Liver Disease
Whenever you drink alcohol, your liver plays a critical role in protecting your health by breaking this substance down and eliminating it before it can build up in your body and cause harm. Unfortunately, alcohol processing in your liver proceeds at a fairly slow pace (less than one standard drink per hour) and it’s pretty easy to overwhelm the organ’s maximum work capacity. If it occurs with any regularity, a significant accumulation of excess alcohol inside your liver can start to produce damaging changes in the organ’s cells. These changes mark the onset of alcoholic liver disease.
The first stage of damaging change in your liver function, called alcoholic fatty liver disease, centers on an abnormal buildup of fat that typically produces no noticeable problems (although affected individuals can develop symptoms such as unusually weak muscles or unexplained declines in body weight). Essentially everyone who habitually drinks in excessive amounts has at least some fat buildup inside his or her liver. The second stage of alcoholic liver disease, called alcoholic hepatitis, occurs when continued excessive drinking leads to mild-to-severe liver cell inflammation and potentially permanent liver cell damage. The third and most severe stage of the disease, called alcoholic cirrhosis, occurs when liver tissue develops permanent scarring that destroys its function. Roughly a third of habitual heavy drinkers will develop alcoholic hepatitis, while one-tenth to one-fifth will develop alcoholic cirrhosis. Both alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis can produce lethal outcomes.
Oxidative stress occurs when natural processes in your body or certain outside influences create molecules called free radicals, which can trigger forms of damage in your cells that include structural deterioration and corruption of your crucial cellular DNA. Most people have heard about supplements and naturally occurring substances called antioxidants, which get their name because they combat the process of oxidative stress and reduce your risks for cellular damage. High, unchecked levels of oxidative stress are associated with notable health concerns that include heart attacks, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), arthritis and emphysema.
Role in Alcohol-Related Liver Change
In the study slated for publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from three Italian institutions used an examination of 118 adults to assess the connection between oxidative stress levels inside the body and the chances of developing alcoholic liver disease. Sixty of these individuals had symptoms that qualified them for a diagnosis of alcoholism (now classified in the U.S. as part of a larger condition called alcohol use disorder); the remaining 58 participants were not affected by alcohol-related problems. All of the participants with alcoholism underwent a number of tests, including an evaluation of their liver fat levels, a measurement of their body fat levels and both basic and detailed blood workups. The researchers used the blood workups to analyze each person’s level of oxidative stress.
After completing their testing and analyses, the researchers concluded that the study participants affected by alcoholism showed signs of a range of serious body function changes, including heightened liver fat levels, heightened accumulations of body fat and increased levels of three potentially dangerous blood-borne substances: LDL cholesterol, fats called triglycerides and sugar (glucose). The researchers also concluded that the participants affected by alcoholism had changes in their blood composition that revealed the presence of unusually high levels of oxidative stress. They linked this stress to the effects of chronic alcohol overconsumption and noted that its presence is clearly associated with fat accumulation in the liver that indicates the presence of alcoholic liver disease.
The study’s authors believe it’s possible to use oxidative stress levels as part of a makeshift test intended to detect the onset of alcoholic liver disease (which commonly produces no outward symptoms in its early stage). They also believe that such a test could be used to reassess the liver health of physically dependent drinkers over time.