Ever since my father died of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) in 2016, I’ve been researching this mysterious and misunderstood condition. As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I have a unique viewpoint on this condition. As a result, I can research and understand the deeper health and addiction issues behind ALD. The truth is, my father had this condition for many years; we just didn’t know. Likewise, those who drink heavily may also have ALD in its early stages, but they don’t know either.
The trouble is — the condition is vague. Also, the liver has a remarkable ability to compensate even though it may be struggling with the amount of alcohol it has to filter out every day. This means people still feel ok despite having liver disease. But the good news is, ALD can be reversible if you catch it early enough and stop drinking.
As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I’ve learned that the only barrier between ALD and fully restored health is the ability to quit drinking. This is much harder than it sounds. We may understand that quitting drinking reverses ALD, but this is much easier said than done. However, knowledge can change everything if that knowledge comes on time.
I suspect my father knew he had a problem with his liver a long time ago but didn’t realize how bad it was. In fact, I remember as a teenager sneaking a peek at some ultrasound test results that said he had some fatty deposits on his liver. At the time, he said the doctor told him it was fine and he shouldn’t worry. And perhaps that was the truth at the time. Indeed, fatty liver disease is a common condition that can be caused by factors other than alcohol. There are many reasons why a liver becomes diseased, but it is caused by alcohol use in the case of ALD.
According to one study, it is estimated that 10–15% of alcoholics will develop liver-related issues over their lifetime. However, the same research shows that most alcoholics don’t even know they have the disease. Not only that, 30% of cases are often found on autopsy. The problem with advanced ALD is that it causes many other health problems, which confuses the issue.
In my dad’s case, he also had type 2 diabetes, a condition often associated with ALD. In addition, he also had mobility issues, muscle contractions, nerve pain, high blood pressure, and severe digestive problems. It was a mystery at the time, but after doing more research, I understand that these conditions are all linked to ALD as well.
The fact that the disease is mysterious and connected to so many other health problems makes it confusing and thus hard for people to get the help they need. This is heartbreaking, considering ALD can be prevented. Although it’s difficult for people to quit an addiction, knowing they have a condition that is fatal if untreated may help some alcoholics to make informed decisions about their health.
The truth is, when the liver is compensating despite being diseased from alcohol, it’s possible to reverse the condition if a person can quit drinking. The liver is one of a few organs that can regenerate. Also, healthy parts of the liver can actually begin to do the functions of the whole liver if given time to recover and adjust.
A compensating liver just means that the liver can still keep up with the most significant responsibilities. This is a good thing because the liver has many jobs to do in the body. It helps digest food, distribute nutrients, make blood cells, stores glucose, and has a role in the immune and nervous systems. It’s been said before that the liver is like the hospital of the body. It filters and removes toxic particles and helps the body repair any damage.
When the liver is compensating, it’s still able to perform these jobs. However, when the liver is assaulted by frequent and heavy alcohol use, there are often signs that show the liver is struggling to keep up. I’ve covered these signs in a previous article, but for my dad, he was showing all of these signs for years before his death.
Suppose alcoholics and the general public are educated about these signs? In that case, they can advocate for their health and thus prevent this disease from progressing. However, it seems that the stigma of being an alcoholic creates a resigned position in the medical community. It’s as if they think the alcoholic is already a lost cause. As such, there’s no point in educating them because “they won’t quit drinking anyway.”
This was the exact mentality that the doctors had in the case of my father. So I asked them why his family doctor wouldn’t tell him that he had liver disease before. They said that it was likely because they were confused by his other issues and that even if they told him, he probably wouldn’t stop drinking anyway. It’s as if the doctors didn’t want to bother investigating or educating. Probably they figured he was just an alcoholic, and that’s it. And by the time he arrived at the hospital, it was already too late. His liver went from compensating to decompensating, and he was going to die.
Unfortunately, a decompensating liver is too diseased to maintain its functions. At that point, the only choice is a liver transplant or death. Most alcoholics who arrive at this point are surprised and obviously deeply disturbed by such terrible news. Perhaps if they had known years earlier that they had a chance, they may have made different choices.
On his deathbed, my father told me that he would have tried to quit drinking if he had known he had severe liver disease. Hearing my father say that broke my heart and lit a fire under me to help educate more people about this condition. I wonder how many other alcoholics have lost their lives and never knew they had the early stage of ALD years before?
The only way to reverse ALD is to quit drinking as well as stop using any hepatotoxic substances. The liver requires a rest period to compensate further and then rejuvenate. It’s not that the diseased tissue comes back to life; instead, the remaining healthy tissue can begin to do the job of the diseased tissue. But this requires a period of deep rest, a healthy diet, and abstaining from all foods, medicines, and toxins that are hard on the liver.
The more alcoholics and their families are educated, the more likely they can advocate for an early diagnosis. It’s true, some alcoholics may choose to drink anyway, but there may be many who would like the chance to prevent the condition from becoming fatal.
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