How alcohol can affect your liver

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can have both short and long-term effects on your health and wellbeing, including causing liver damage. Although your liver can regenerate, repeated damage can cause healthy tissue to be replaced with scar tissue. As the amount of scar tissue increases, the function of your liver can decrease.

What can happen to your liver if you drink too much?

A leading cause of liver damage is long-term alcohol misuse, which can lead to alcohol-related liver disease. Your liver has the ability to regenerate in response to damage but repeated damage causes scar tissue to build up, which over time can impair your liver function.

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can also increase your risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, mouth cancer and oesophageal cancer. 

Alcohol and liver damage

Regularly drinking too much alcohol puts a strain on your liver, which is responsible for processing alcohol by breaking it down. The byproducts of the breakdown of alcohol are what damage your liver. 

Alcohol-related liver damage initially causes fat to accumulate in your liver, followed by inflammation and finally the build-up of scar tissue. 

What are the first signs of liver damage?

In the early stages, you may not be aware that you have alcohol-related liver disease as it doesn’t often cause symptoms initially. However, as the condition progresses, you may experience:

Risk factors for liver damage

Risk factors for developing alcohol-related liver disease include:

  • Being female 
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol — drinking in moderation (ie less than 14 units a week, spread over at least three days) can cause fat to accumulate in your liver but in much lower amounts than drinking excessively
  • Having a chronic (long-term) infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Your genetics — your genes affect how well your liver breaks down alcohol and your risk for developing alcohol-related liver disease

Alcohol and liver cancer

Regularly drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increases your risk of liver cirrhosis (long-term liver damage and scarring), which subsequently increases your risk of liver cancer. 

Symptoms of liver cancer

In the early stages, liver cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, as the condition progresses, you may experience: 

  • Abdominal symptoms — this includes
    • A lump on the right side of your abdomen
    • A swollen abdomen 
    • Abdominal pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Jaundice ie yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes
  • Loss of appetite or feeling full after eating very little
  • Nausea
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you have liver cirrhosis or another liver condition and you notice any of the above symptoms, new symptoms or worsening symptoms, see your doctor. 

Risk factors for liver cancer

Seven in every 100 cases of liver cancer in the UK are caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk of liver cancer. Research has shown drinking 4.5 units of alcohol or more every day increases your risk by 16%, while drinking six units of alcohol or more every day more than doubles your risk when compared with non-drinkers or occasional drinkers.

How to improve liver health

Reducing how much alcohol you drink will improve your liver health. There are several other steps you can take to improve your liver health, including: 

  • Checking with your doctor whether any medications or supplements you’re taking are placing an extra strain on your liver — your doctor may be able to recommend and/or prescribe alternative medications or supplements
  • Exercising regularly to reduce excess fat, including fat in your liver
  • Following a healthy, balanced diet
  • Having regular health check-ups
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

How alcohol can affect your liver FAQs

How much alcohol will damage your liver?

Drinking in moderation (ie less than 14 units of alcohol per week spread over at least three days with several alcohol-free days) can increase fat levels in your liver. However, liver damage usually only occurs if you drink in excess ie more than 14 units per week and/or regularly binge drink. 

What are signs that your liver is struggling?

Signs that your liver may be damaged include abdominal swelling, discomfort and/or pain, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, tiredness and unexplained weight loss. 

How do I know if my liver is OK?

Liver damage often doesn’t cause any symptoms in the early stages. If you are concerned about the health of your liver, see your doctor. Depending on your medical history and levels of alcohol consumption, they may recommend an ultrasound scan of your liver to check its health. 

What alcohol is easy on the liver?

All types of alcohol place a strain on your liver as your liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol. If you are a regular drinker, you should, therefore, incorporate several alcohol-free days into your week to give your liver a chance to rest and recover. You should also avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week and should spread these units out over at least three days. 

Does your liver get better if you stop drinking?

Yes, your liver can get better if you stop drinking as it can regenerate. However, in very advanced cases of alcohol-related liver disease, your liver may not be able to recover. 

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.