How Does Alcohol Harm the Liver?

What are the symptoms of alcohol poisoning of the liver?

More than just a beverage, a pleasant accompaniment to food, the technical product of the fermentation and distillation of fruits, vegetables or grains, alcohol has played a deep and important role in human history. It is both a pleasant intoxicant and a scourge, a facilitator of friendships and business deals and a destroyer of families and careers. To quote Anacharsis (c. 600 B.C.), “The vine bears three kinds of grapes: the first of pleasure, the next of intoxication and the third of disgust.”

The remains of grapes are found in ancient Egypt from around 3000 B.C. and wine was likely made and drunk in Crete during the second millennium B.C. The soldiers of Troy mixed wine in great vessels and shared the contents among the troops prior to battle, tipping some on the ground as homage and appeasement to the gods, seeking their favor in the outcome, their help in the conflict. Even today, wine is used in religious ceremonies representing the blood of Christ during communion. Literature, not to mention vast human experience, is full of references to wine and beer, brandy and the spirits, with both its pleasant and enjoyable effects on conversation and the expression of deep feeling, as well as its excesses when things are said or done while intoxicated leading to trouble, regret and remorse.

How Does Alcohol Harm the Liver?

Today, we understand more about the toxic effects of alcohol on a chemical level. We have abundant and sickening experience with the effects of chronic excessive drinking, the ravages of alcoholism and the physical decline and death that results from addiction to the substance. Everyone knows, and many have first-hand experience with, the intoxicating effects of alcohol. The key ingredient is ethanol, a substance that moves effortlessly into the brain within minutes of consumption causing a range of mood changes from euphoria, relaxation, a loss of inhibitions and grandiose or garrulous behavior, to gloominess, belligerence and combativeness. Thinking becomes fuzzy, speech becomes slurred and coordination impaired. As the dose goes up, a general stupor, then coma results, with vomiting and aspiration, respiratory depression, and collapse of blood pressure, leading to the occasional death from acute alcohol intoxication. Our local emergency room, like most, frequently treats binge-drinking college students flirting with just such a disaster.

Among other things, ethanol is a toxin to the liver. In a gallant attempt to remove the toxic chemical from the blood stream, the liver suffers injury, cell death and inflammation. The effects in the short term, with an occasional binge, or with regular but moderate drinking, are minor or nonexistent as the liver has an abundant capacity to repair and regenerate itself. However, the alcoholic, the regular heavy drinker or the frequent binger is especially prone to acute alcoholic hepatitis. This is an inflammation of the liver, similar to a viral hepatitis, that causes abdominal pain, tenderness of the liver and transient liver dysfunction.

The patient feels weak, nauseated and fatigued, and may complain of abdominal pain. Blood tests will show leakage of liver enzymes into the blood stream, a rise in a substance called bilirubin (causing yellow jaundice), clotting problems and a reduced ability to synthesize proteins. While there is no specific treatment, with abstinence and supportive care, the liver heals and reconstitutes itself.

More serious problems occur with alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Some people are more prone to cirrhosis than others — there may be genetic factors involved — but it is a risk to all chronic heavy drinkers. Cirrhosis and hepatitis may result from beer, wine or liquor: It is not what you drink, but rather the quantity of ethanol consumed that causes the toxicity. Cirrhosis is a scarring process that results in shrinkage of the liver, sustained and progressive loss of function and ultimately liver failure. Some will remember the recent death of Micky Mantle, the baseball great who died of liver failure from alcoholic cirrhosis. A patient with cirrhosis often looks chronically ill. They may appear unkempt or malnourished, a swollen abdomen may indicate a collection of ascitic fluid, and they are prone to sudden infections, internal bleeding and other complications.

The drinking of alcohol such as wine or beer is such a timeless and historic pleasure, the flavor of the drink reflecting the soil of origin, the skill of the maker, the characteristics of a region. We associate drinking with good times, and meaningful events. It is no wonder that it is so highly valued and so frequently used. Yet your question reminds us of the other edge of the sword, the lethal cut of its toxicity, the need to take alcohol, like all pleasures, in measured amounts.

The information contained in or made available through This Site cannot replace or substitute for the services of trained professionals in the medical field. We do not recommend any treatment, drug, food or supplement. You should regularly consult a doctor in all matters relating to physical or mental health, particularly concerning any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

Subscribe Scroll to Top