Can the Liver Repair Itself After Years of Heavy Drinking?
In This Article
Can Your Liver Heal Itself From Alcohol?
The ability of your liver to repair itself after alcohol damage depends on the extent of the damage. Since the liver is very resilient, alcoholic fatty liver disease can resolve on its own if you reduce your drinking.1
It may be possible to drink moderately after your liver has returned to normal. However, it’s critical to keep an eye on your liver’s health and avoid putting it under stress.
Depending on how far the disease has progressed, alcoholic hepatitis is usually reversible. Quitting drinking and, in certain instances, taking medication may help your liver recover by reducing inflammation.
Cirrhosis, on the other hand, is irreversible. If your liver has scar tissue, it will most likely remain like that for the rest of your life. The greatest thing you can do if you have cirrhosis is to quit drinking as soon as possible and get medical advice on managing your condition.
Can The Liver Repair Itself After Years of Heavy Drinking?
The liver can repair itself even after years of drinking if the damage hasn’t progressed to cirrhosis. In this case, fatty liver disease and alcoholic hepatitis are reversible if you quit alcohol consumption and give your liver time to heal.
The time required for the liver to fully heal will depend on several factors, primarily alcohol usage.
The healing process may still be possible for heavy drinkers in the early stages of liver damage. However, if you have cirrhosis, the build-up of scar tissues will make it impossible for your liver to repair itself.
How Long Does it Take for the Liver to Heal Itself?
The liver is an amazing organ. It's self-healing and is constantly in a state of generating. If you quit consuming alcohol early enough in the illness process, your liver may be able to repair some alcohol-related damage.
Healing can begin a few days to weeks after you quit drinking. However, it might take months or even years if the damage is severe.
The more breathing room you give your liver, the quicker it will heal. That’s why you must constantly take extra precautions while caring for your liver if you’ve been diagnosed with a liver illness or injury.
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How Alcohol Affects Your Liver
The liver is the largest internal body organ. It's actively involved in breaking down and eliminating bodily waste products, including alcohol.2
In fact, the liver breaks down more than 90 percent of consumed alcohol. The rest is passed through urine, sweat, or breath.3
One alcoholic beverage takes around an hour to be processed in the body.
With each drink, the time lengthens. The longer it takes for someone to metabolize alcohol, the greater their blood alcohol content will be after a few drinks.
The liver can only handle a specific amount of alcohol at a time. This depends largely on genetics, but the liver size and body mass index also play a role.
When a person drinks excessively, the alcohol that is not metabolized by the liver remains in the blood. They become drunk when their high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level crosses the brain, causing some cognitive changes.
How Heavy Drinking Affects Your Liver
Chronic alcoholism can cause significant long-term damage to your liver. It can destroy liver cells, resulting in liver scarring (cirrhosis), alcoholic hepatitis, and cellular mutations that may lead to liver cancer.4
Although heavy drinkers may develop alcoholic cirrhosis without first developing hepatitis, these diseases typically progress from fatty liver to alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis:
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease: Research shows that liver disease develops after consuming a "threshold" dose of four alcoholic drinks per day. This leads to fat deposition in the liver.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: This is an acute liver inflammation resulting in cell death and accompanied by permanent scarring.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: This is the worst stage of liver damage, characterized by tissue destruction and irreversible scarring.
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How Much Alcohol Can Cause Liver Damage?
Studies indicate that the effects of alcohol intake depend on individual factors such as weight, size, genetics, gender, and underlying health conditions.5
In contrast to men, women absorb more alcohol from each drink, putting them at higher risk of liver disease. The liver may be harmed by drinking two to three alcoholic beverages daily.
Furthermore, binge drinking, or consuming four or five drinks in one session, may harm the liver. Those who consume 40 grams of alcohol daily risk developing liver cirrhosis.
Alcoholic hepatitis affects those who have been drinking excessively for several years. On the other hand, cirrhosis patients often have a history of excessive drinking that spans more than ten years.
Risk Factors for Liver Damage
Heavy, everyday drinkers are at the highest risk for liver damage. However, they aren’t the only ones in danger. According to one study, even seven weeks of binge drinking may result in the early stages of liver damage.6 Each person’s tolerance for alcohol and the length of time it takes to cause harm will differ.
You should be particularly cautious if you have a family history of drinking, liver illness, or other underlying problems.
Alcohol combined with other medicines can be extremely harmful to your liver. Consult a medical professional before mixing these medications with alcohol:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Pain relievers
- Blood thinners
- Muscle relaxants
Signs of Liver Damage From Alcohol
Unfortunately, an alcohol-related liver disease usually has minimal to no symptoms until it progresses to the point where your liver can't function properly.
Below are early signs of liver damage:
- Tenderness in the liver
- Abnormal weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Drowsiness and confusion
In case of severe inflammation in the liver, the following symptoms may occur:
- Swelling in the ankles and feet
- Itchy skin
- Jaundice (yellow skin)
- Increased sensitivity to illness
- Traces of blood in vomit or stool
- Ascites (swelling of the abdomen due to fluid build-up)
- Liver failure
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8 Signs Your Liver is Healing From Alcohol
If your liver begins to perform the following functions effectively, it's a sign of healing:
1. Amino-acid regulation
When you stop drinking, your liver can process proteins and amino acids that the body could not store before. As your liver heals, it can regain its functionality and start filtering toxins from your body.
2. Balancing glucose levels
Alcohol can drastically affect your blood sugar levels. While moderate amounts of alcohol may cause blood sugar to rise, excess alcohol can decrease your blood sugar level.
When you quit alcohol, your body can start balancing your glucose levels better. Once you notice your blood sugar return to normal levels, you'll know your liver is healing.
3. Enabling blood clotting
Alcohol decreases the production of blood platelets in the blood. The platelets are responsible for helping cuts clot or stop bleeding.
After you stop drinking, your body can start producing a normal amount of blood platelets.
4. Creating immune factors
Your liver plays a critical role in detecting, capturing, and clearing harmful bacteria and viruses. Alcohol can severely impact your liver's ability to function.
Once your body starts to heal from the effects of alcohol, your liver will be able to help filter and remove harmful bacteria.
5. Eliminating bacteria from the bloodstream
Your liver is a vital filtration system for your body. When you drink, you impact your liver’s ability to keep bacteria out of your bloodstream, leading to sepsis and septic shock.
6. Efficient bilirubin removal
Bilirubin is a viscous, brownish-yellow substance that is a natural byproduct of liver processes. Excessive alcohol use can increase the bilirubin in the body.
However, your liver can start to process bilirubin at a normal and efficient rate after it recovers from the effects of alcohol.
7. Eliminating drugs from the system
Like other substances, the liver can efficiently eliminate drugs from your system. However, it can struggle to do this when the liver is affected by excessive alcohol intake.
Once your body starts efficiently removing drugs from your system, it's a sign of the liver healing itself.
8. Converting glucose to glycogen
Drinking excessively can disrupt your body's diurnal rhythms. Alcohol inhibits your body's ability to convert glucose to glycogen. When your liver can do this properly, that's a sign it's healing.
When a healthy liver is damaged, it can repair itself. Liver troubles can me that you're dealing with a problem that could permanently damage your liver and jeopardize your life.
Make an effort to see your doctor if you have any underlying concerns.
When is Liver Repair Treatment Necessary?
Liver repair treatment is necessary before the damage progresses. Unfortunately, alcohol-related liver disease often has no symptoms until it has progressed to the point where your liver cannot function properly. This is why you have to seek medical checkups regularly to detect any early symptoms of damage.
Alcohol abuse typically results in three kinds of liver damage. Alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis will require medical treatment. Fortunately, fatty liver disease may heal on its own if you quit drinking.
If you stop drinking alcohol, you can give your liver the time it needs to recuperate. However, the risk of developing fatal liver disease increases if you don't stop.
These diseases will need medical intervention in addition to self-help measures such as consuming a liver-nourishing diet. If treatment is ignored, consumption continues, and the condition progresses. Your liver may lose its functionality. As a result, you will have to undergo a liver transplant to fix it.
When is Alcohol-Induced Liver Damage Irreversible?
Alcohol-induced liver damage is irreversible once the condition advances from alcoholic hepatitis to liver cirrhosis. Liver cirrhosis is characterized by scarring of the liver tissue, making it difficult for the liver to regenerate new cells and perform most of its functions.7
When you have cirrhosis, you must quit drinking alcohol to avoid dying from liver failure, which occurs when your liver stops functioning entirely. You will only be eligible for a liver transplant if you have not used alcohol for at least three months in the most severe instances.
How to Tell When it’s Time to Stop Drinking
Drinking alcohol may be fun, but there comes a time when one has to make that big decision to quit. How do you determine that it’s time to regain your sobriety?
Below are signs that will tell you when it's time to put that drink away:
- Trouble controlling or stopping your drinking behavior even though you have the desire to do so
- Built-up tolerance for alcohol
- Making excuses just to get time to drink
- Physical changes or neglecting physical appearance
- Loss of appetite or malnutrition
- Drinking alone
- Concern from friends and family members who observe your behavior
- Alcohol-related health problems such as liver damage and mental health issues
Acknowledging that you have an alcohol problem is an essential step toward recovery. It's possible to live a productive and healthy lifestyle while abstaining from alcohol, but you will need the support of others to learn how to stop drinking and enjoy life without it.
Alcohol rehab centers can help you recover from alcohol addiction and regain proper mental health.
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- “Treatment: Alcohol-related liver disease,” National Health Service (NHS), 2022.
- “Alcohol in the body,” National Institute of Health (NIH), 2005.
- “Alcohol Metabolism,” Bowling Green State University (BGSU), 2019.
- “Alcohol Metabolism: An Update,” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2007.
- “Information about Alcohol,” National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 2007.
- “Binge Drinking May Quickly Lead to Liver Damage,” University of California San Francisco (UCSF), 2017.
- “Alcoholic Liver Disease,” Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Thomes, P., et al. “Natural Recovery by the Liver and Other Organs after Chronic Alcohol Use.” Alcohol research, 2021.