Tuesday, April 25, 2006 9:46 AM CDT
Editor’s note: This is the last in a four-part, weekly series.
By Adam Hammer, staff writer
Hangovers are temporary, but cirrhosis of the liver is forever and often results in death.
"Alcohol is a contributor to the top three causes of death partially because the immune system is decreased," Barb Meek, a certified nurse practitioner at Fountain Centers, said.
A body’s immune system is an intricate network of blood cells and proteins that protect the body against infections. These defense mechanisms can be severely impaired, leaving them susceptible to infections including pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Not only chronic alcohol abuse, but single-episode and moderate consumption can affect the immune system, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Although the effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the immune system are generally short term, the failure of an appropriate initial immune system response can leave the body open to certain types of infections including HIV.
Following traumatic injuries, alcohol’s effect can also hinder healing and recovery.
For people who have been drinking for many years, serious liver injury often occurs. Heavy alcohol use is the leading single cause of illness and death from liver disease in the United States.
"Because the liver is damaged, it affects everything above it," Meek said. "The liver is responsible for so much. We can’t live without a functioning liver."
The liver is particularly susceptible to alcohol-related injury because it is the main site of alcohol metabolism. As alcohol is broken down, a number of potentially dangerous by-products are generated.
Symptoms of liver damage may not appear until damage is rather extensive.
Studies have shown that for serious liver injury to occur, a threshold dose must be consumed over many years. For men that intake could be approximately 72 ounces of beer – five or six standard drinks – daily for 20 years.
For women the threshold amount is one-fourth to one-half the amount for men.
Alcohol-related liver damage is divided into three categories: Fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Fatty liver is reversible and occurs in almost all heavy drinkers. It can also occur for short periods in non-alcoholics after a single drinking session.
Alcoholic hepatitis is characterized by widespread inflammation and destruction of liver tissue. Symptoms may include fever, jaundice and abdominal pain. The condition can be fatal, but may be reversible by abstaining from drinking. Alcoholic hepatitis occurs in up to 50 percent of heavy drinkers according to NIAAA.
As drinking continues, cells continue to die. Tissue continues to be destroyed and replaced by scar tissue, a process known as fibrosis. Extensive fibrosis is one of the characteristics of alcoholic cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis is diagnosed in 15 to 30 percent of heavy drinkers and is usually fatal and always irreversible. It can, however, be stabilized with abstinence.
It’s no secret that alcohol impairs judgment and affects the brain, but the degree of severity in regards to the developing brain is coming to light with recent studies.
A study released by Duke Medical Center notes that a tremendous amount of development occurs in the brain during the teen years, including a major remodeling of the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are involved in planning, decision-making, impulse control and language.
Developmental changes in the brain are influenced by experience. For example, the brain takes a daily inventory of neurotoxins that are released to the brain so it knows how much to produce for the next day. It takes the brain about 14 years to develop a steady daily production of neurotoxins that is determined by daily inventory taken during the teen years.
The moldability of the brain decreases as people enter their early 20s.
Long-term drinking in adults can cause memory loss and hinder the ability to problem solve. When the brain gets too low on thiamin, often due to malnutrition in relation to drinking, brain damage, delusions and hallucinations can occur.
Granted not all cases of cirrhosis of the liver and other illnesses associated with alcohol are strictly because of alcohol, genetics also plays a large role.
Seeing the signs and symptoms of alcohol-related illnesses can be difficult, however, if someone who drinks often is experiencing high blood pressure, memory loss and often becoming ill, it may be best to see a doctor.
"Even if it’s not from alcohol, it’s a good idea to go in," Meek said. "People can’t necessarily see a problem themselves, it’s the people around them that can."