During the pandemic, the incidence of heavy drinking shot up quite a bit. Market research showed that online alcohol sales rose by 234%. In one study, 34.1% of individuals engaged in binge drinking and 7% engaged in severe binge drinking. Binge drinking is consuming more than 4–5 beverages in a short period of time. This type of drinking seriously impacts the judgment, safety, and health of individuals.
I have also struggled with heavy drinking myself, but I am currently sober five and a half years. I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I was still drinking when the pandemic hit. Although there are clear reasons why people turn to alcohol (such as stress, lack of resources, and genetic/environmental issues), most of us don’t realize its impact on our health and well-being.
In particular, people don’t realize what alcohol does to their liver over time. Five years ago, I lost my father to alcoholic liver disease, and I was surprised by how quickly he got very sick and eventually died. However, none of us realized that he had been coping with the condition for a long time before then. This is because liver disease can remain relatively silent and confusing until the liver suddenly fails and severe symptoms show up unexpectedly.
For many who’ve increased their drinking during the pandemic, now is an excellent time to examine their liver health and know this important information before it’s too late. This information isn’t widely available, and doctors struggle to educate people because of how confusing the condition is. Also, many of the early symptoms can be confused with other conditions.
However, there are some tell-tale signs of early alcoholic liver disease that you should know about. This information can increase the probability of people communicating more effectively with their doctors and getting tested and treated early on. The truth is, many alcoholics don’t divulge their drinking to their doctors; this is exactly what my father did. But, telling your doctor the exact amount you drink could save your life.
Below are some early signs of alcoholic liver disease based on specific body systems. The truth is, the symptoms all take place outside of the liver, as the liver impacts almost every part of our body. So when the liver is struggling, other body systems struggle.
Early liver problems can make you feel tired, groggy, sluggish, and slightly confused. Again, this can be a sign of many other issues, but it’s certainly something that indicates the liver is struggling as well.
The liver has many responsibilities, but one of its primary functions is to filter toxins and dangerous substances from the blood. It also helps regulate hormone production, blood glucose levels, and vitamin absorption. When these functions are not working optimally, the body begins to feel sluggish and tired. The brain cannot cope as well without proper glucose management, vitamins, and hormone balance.
The liver plays a vital part in our digestive process — everything from digesting food to absorbing vitamins. It also helps filter out toxins from our food intake and helps break down fats and glucose.
When the liver begins to get damaged, the digestive processes start to slow down a little. The liver will divert its energy toward more important issues like filtering out medications and other toxic substances. This means that specific digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, heartburn, and nausea begin to appear. Early liver issues can make digesting more complex foods like protein and fats difficult, and thus, people can acquire a bit of an aversion to these foods.
Alcohol consumption leads to redness and flushing of the face and hands due to blood vessel dilation. Over time this can lead to permanent redness of the face, especially in men. However, another lesion called spider angiomas are more specific to alcoholic liver issues. These lesions look like a spider web on the surface of the skin with a red center. They can be large or small.
Spider angiomas are caused by an increase in estrogen production in the body. Liver disease can disrupt hormone balance, as mentioned above. As the liver becomes more damaged, estrogens rise in the blood, causing spider angiomas. These lesions can also be accompanied by a reddening of the palms of the hands.
As mentioned above, the liver helps absorb and store vitamins that are essential for our health and wellbeing. One crucial vitamin is called B1 or Thiamine. Unfortunately, most alcoholics are deficient in this vitamin as alcohol blocks its absorption. Over time, as the liver becomes damaged, it can’t store enough of this vitamin.
Vitamin B1 or Thiamine is responsible for many neurological functions in the body, so many symptoms begin to show themselves without a steady supply. In the beginning, the symptoms may be mild, but as the deficiency progresses, the symptoms become severe and can even be life-threatening.
Some symptoms of Thiamine deficiency are: confusion, pain, and numbness in the hands and feet, lack of balance, shuffling gait, muscle weakness, digestive problems, rapid heart rate, flushing, and flickering eye movements called nystagmus.
Thiamine deficiency is reported in almost all heavy daily drinkers, but you can be sure that if Thiamine is deficient, the liver is also struggling.
The pandemic has put a lot of pressure and stress on people, making them turn to activities like heavy drinking more often. I can’t even count the number of tweets I’ve seen talking about drinking as a way to cope with all that’s happened in the last two years. And while it’s understandable that people want an “out” to all the stress, they may not realize what heavy alcohol use is doing to their livers.
This is partly due to a lack of info, but also, alcoholic liver disease is confusing to treat and diagnose. It mimics many other conditions and is often only detected when it’s too late. This is why for those who drink heavily, it’s worth letting your doctor know the exact amount you consume each day or week. This way, they can be more aware of the situation and diagnose liver issues much earlier. This can give you more control over your health and decision-making. I think if my father had let his doctor know about the extent of his drinking habits, he may still be here today.
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