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Alcohol and Cirrhosis

Giving up alcohol for a spell to “clean the system” as a health boost has been growing in popularity. Dry January is now a regular feature on the calendar and Dry February and a Dry Lent are also now being followed.

The benefits of this are still being discussed, but generally it is agreed that as little as two weeks abstinence can go a long way to returning a body to better health. Alcohol Concern, who initiated the Dry January campaign, say the health benefits include losing weight and improved sleep.

Anything that helps prevents alcohol doing damage to our body has to be good and it is worth noting that alcohol is a growing problem among our age group… according to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, since 2009 there has been a 44% increase in those aged 50 and over accessing alcohol treatment.

One of the serious problems that can be caused by continuous excessive drinking is damage to the liver, and this can result in cirrhosis, a condition which causes the liver to slowly deteriorate and become unable to function normally.

The liver is an incredibly important part of our body, carrying out hundreds of jobs which are vital for sustaining life. For instance, it stores glycogen, a carbohydrate that produces short term energy; it makes bile, involved in helping to digest fats; it makes substances that clot the blood and it processes and removed toxins, drugs – and alcohol – from our systems.

Cirrhosis occurs after long term continuous damage to the liver finally leads to scarring and with irregular bumps replacing the smooth liver tissue. This build up of this scar tissue can interfere with the blood flow and stop the liver functioning properly and can finally result in liver failure.

Alcohol is not the only cause of cirrhosis of the liver; long term infections such as hepatitis B or hepatitis C can also cause the condition; and it can also occur in clinically obese people who develop a fatty liver.

In Western countries, cirrhosis is among the 10 leading causes of death among adults. In the UK, almost 5000 people die from cirrhosis each year and hundreds have a liver transplant to survive. It is a growing problem.

One of the big issues with cirrhosis is that there are no early symptoms, and people are unaware of the growing problem until they see a doctor because of some tangible concern – perhaps they have developed a pain in the liver area; or are feeling continually sick, have lost weight or generally feel unwell. Later symptoms, when the liver is struggling to function, include jaundice, itchy skin, white nails, dark urine and swelling of the abdomen.

The symptoms can be so wide and varied because the liver is responsible for so many different functions in the body. This makes it difficult for a doctor to immediately assess, and so blood tests are usually undertaken. These include a Liver Function Test which looks at different properties in the blood to gain an idea of how different parts of your liver are functioning. Imaging tests (perhaps using ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging) can also be useful.

Treatment of course depends on how serious the problem is; immediately lifestyle changes and cutting out alcohol can help delay progression of the disease. If it is caused by hepatitis B or C, then new anti-viral medications will be recommended. A wide range of other treatments are available after full diagnosis right up to a liver transplant.

Until recently it was thought that a liver with cirrhosis could not be healed in any way; however more recent research has shown that it may be possible to reduce and even heal the scarring on the liver.

A new study out this week (from Barcelona’s Institute d’Investigacions Biomediques August Pi i Sunyer) identifies a protein that may prevent the development of abnormal blood vessels associated with cirrhosis. This is one of the most serious complications in patients with the disease and a key factor in the development and worsening of the conditions. However, as with so many medical aspects, nothing is clear cut and more research in being undertaken at the Barcelona centre including the link between cirrhosis and liver cancer and other areas.

Alcohol Concern has lots of useful information:

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