Our bodies can cope with small amounts of alcohol, so we can actually enjoy the occasional drink or two. But having a higher consumption can increase your risk of facing health problems, such as liver diseases. In Singapore, it is recommended that men and women should consume no more than two and one standard drink a day respectively. A standard alcoholic drink is considered to be 35ml of spirit, 175 ml of wine or 330ml of regular beer. When you consume more than the recommended safe limits of alcohol, it can be harmful and increases the risks of causing significant problems with your health. Too much alcohol consumption can result in 3 main types of liver conditions, namely fatty liver, ‘scarring’ of the liver (cirrhosis) and hepatitis (inflammation of liver). One individual can have any, or all, of the conditions at a time.
Symptoms of liver disease
Early-stage liver diseases, particularly mild hepatitis or fatty liver, may not display any symptoms. However, as the condition progresses, the following symptoms may gradually develop:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Jaundice (yellowish discolouration of skin, and eye)
- Dark urine colour (tea coloured)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Itchy skin
- Pale or very dark/black faeces due to bleeding into the upper part of the intestine
What happens in the body when you drink alcohol?
When you drink, the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines and this will flow into the liver for further breakdown. Thus, the highest concentration of alcohol lies in the blood which flows through the liver.
Liver cells contain enzymes that can metabolise or process alcohol. The alcohol is broken down into other chemicals and eventually into water and carbon dioxide, to be passed out through urine and from the lungs. The liver cells are only able to process a certain amount of alcohol hourly. Therefore, if excessive alcohol is consumed more than the liver is able to handle, the alcohol level in the bloodstream rises and can cause liver cell damage.
Treatment for liver diseases
Liver is a very strong organ, the cells can regenerate and when you stop drinking completely. If you have mild alcoholic hepatitis and fatty liver, you can usually recover from it if you can avoid alcohol consumption completely. You may also be recommended make dietary and lifestyle modifications to improve your well-being such as cutting down fatty food and do regular exercise. For those with mild cirrhosis, the condition will often not progress if alcohol is also completely avoided. In severe cases where the liver ‘scarring’ is extensive and the liver can barely function, the only possible treatment option is a liver transplant.
If a doctor suspects you have liver problems based from your symptoms, a physical examination may be conducted as well as several tests to check for the condition of your liver. These tests include blood test, liver function test and ultrasound scan.
This article written by Dr Chong Chern Hao, gutCARE gastroenterologist from Mount Elizabeth Hospital.