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Alcohol and Health

How Much Alcohol Causes Cirrhosis?

June 22, 2023
10 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 22, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 22, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 22, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
June 22, 2023
10 min read

There’s no way around it — cirrhosis, a severe liver disease primarily caused by excessive alcohol consumption, is a heavy topic. But before you start to panic, rest assured that a single glass of Chianti isn’t the culprit here. When it comes to risk, it’s all about the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption. So, how much alcohol causes cirrhosis? What are alcoholic cirrhosis symptoms? And what is liver cirrhosis treatment like? Let’s find out!

The (Not So) Silent Liver Assassin

First, let’s talk about the causes and risk of liver cirrhosis. When we’re talking about booze, the reason it causes liver cirrhosis has to do with the way our body processes alcohol. First the liver transforms it into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, and then into the non-toxic acetate. This two-step process is taxing for the liver, and it supersedes any other duties the liver might otherwise be fulfilling.

Our livers are incredibly resilient. They can take the hit of moderate alcohol consumption, heal, and regenerate. However, long-term heavy drinking can overwhelm this regeneration process, leading to scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is a late stage of scarring — also known as liver fibrosis — of the liver caused by the repeated process of damaged tissue repairing itself. Over time, as more and more scar tissue forms, the structure of the liver changes: it becomes hard and lumpy and starts to function less efficiently. Eventually, liver fibrosis can progress to cirrhosis.

This inefficient functioning of the liver can have a significant impact on our bodies. Our livers perform hundreds of vital functions: filtering toxins from our blood, aiding digestion, metabolizing drugs and hormones, storing vitamins and nutrients, and even helping clot our blood.

What Are the Signs?

In the early stages of cirrhosis, one might not experience any symptoms. As cirrhosis progresses, symptoms and complications can develop that indicate the liver is severely damaged. These can include fatigue, easy bruising, jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes), intense itching, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, loss of appetite, and confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech.

Cirrhosis doesn't occur overnight. The liver damage that leads to cirrhosis is gradual, often taking many years of consistent heavy drinking. The initial stage, “alcoholic fatty liver disease,” is reversible. The next phase — alcoholic hepatitis — is when inflammation and liver cell damage start to occur. With the right steps, it’s still manageable; however, if heavy drinking continues, alcoholic cirrhosis becomes a real risk.

Unfortunately, once cirrhosis is present it tends to be permanent; it's very difficult to repair the damaged liver tissue. However, if the cirrhosis is diagnosed early enough, damage can be minimized by treating the underlying cause or various complications arising from it. As far as liver cirrhosis treatment goes, this usually means setting booze aside. In severe cases of cirrhosis, liver transplantation may be the only treatment option.

Diagram about the stages of liver damage

How Much Is Too Much?

Now for the million-dollar question: how much alcohol causes cirrhosis? There is no neat, one-size-fits-all answer, unfortunately. The process is complex, and it depends on a variety of factors such as drinking patterns, body weight, age, and genetics.

As a general rule, though, men who consume more than 3-4 drinks per day and women who have 2-3 drinks daily over a period of 10 to 12 years are more likely to develop cirrhosis. This might seem manageable, but keep in mind that one standard “drink” equals 14 grams of pure alcohol. That's about 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of regular beer.

It's Not Just the Heavy Drinkers

A common misconception is that cirrhosis is a problem for the “heavy drinkers” only. While it's true that the risk increases as consumption increases, even moderate drinking can, over time, contribute to liver disease. This is especially true if it’s combined with other liver stressors, like obesity or viral hepatitis. It's not just the number of drinks that count: it’s our overall health context.

Drinking With Cirrhosis

What about if we’ve already been diagnosed — is drinking with cirrhosis an absolute no? Well, let’s just say it’s not the best idea. For one thing, it can exacerbate liver inflammation and increase the risk of liver failure. Drinking alcohol with cirrhosis can also increase the risk of developing other health complications, such as bleeding disorders, kidney problems, and an increased risk of liver cancer.

And occasional drinking with cirrhosis? Again, it’s best to tread carefully. It’s important to give our liver time to rest and recover to avoid making things worse, so even occasional drinking with cirrhosis can be asking for trouble.

Giving Our Livers a Chance

It's not all doom and gloom! Just as our behavior contributed to the damage, our behavior has the power to help our livers heal. Cirrhosis is largely preventable by reducing alcohol consumption or abstaining entirely. 

Here are some steps we can take on a journey to heal our liver:

  • Understand your drinking patterns. Keep a journal of your drinking habits. How often do you drink, and how much? You may be surprised at what the numbers reveal.
  • Define boundaries. Set limits for yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend sticking to up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
  • Focus on nutrition. A healthy diet can support liver function and promote overall well-being. Opt for fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of liver disease.
  • Seek help. If you’re finding it hard to cut down, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists, support groups, and treatment programs can provide guidance and support.

In Conclusion

Cirrhosis poses a very real threat to our liver, and alcohol consumption is its primary cause. But there’s no need to blame ourselves or dwell on past choices. Let’s empower ourselves with knowledge and make conscious decisions moving forward.

Our livers are some of the hardest workers in our bodies, and it's never too late to show them some love. Let's treat them kindly, and they'll pay us back in kind with health, vitality, and the freedom to enjoy life's pleasures.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you can download it today with absolutely no risk! Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Can’t wait to welcome you into our caring and fun community!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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