How to Drink Responsibly and Keep Your Liver Healthy
All those Bachelorettewine nights, work happy hours, and boozy brunches may be catching up to millennials. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal tracked liver-related diseases and deaths from 1999 to 2016 and found alcohol consumption-related liver deaths had the biggest spike among young people aged 25-34 years old. In that 17-year timespan, annual deaths from cirrhosis (scarring of the liver caused by liver conditions and diseases) in the US alarmingly increased by 65 percent.
“Some young people may think they have a high tolerance for alcohol, and that they can increase the amount of alcohol they drink without manifesting any symptoms, at least initially,” says Jamile Wakim-Fleming, MD, hepatologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of How the Birds Stop Singing: Stories of Drug and Alcohol Abuse as Told to a Doctor. “But they develop a tendency to drink more and more over time and may not realize that harmful effects are happening to their body until they reach a breaking point where their body becomes fully intoxicated and it breaks down.”
This increase in drinking-related liver problems among that age group could be caused by a few different factors. “I have noticed this trend in our outpatient clinic and in hospital beds,” says Wakim-Fleming. “Young people tend to experiment with different alcohol concentrations and flavors that are tasty and appealing. In addition to drinking highly concentrated alcohol brands, they drink too much.”
When it comes to how much alcohol is “safe” for women to drink, the CDC recommends up to one drink per day. “One drink” can be a little vague, so if you’re wondering what that means in terms of your end-of-day bevvie, here’s exactly how much it’s okay to consume:
- 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol content)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol content)
- 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol content)
- 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof (40 percent alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey)
But that might still be too much. “Even with one drink a day, a person may end up destroying the liver over time. Alcohol consumption has a cumulative effect,” says Wakim-Fleming.
Your predisposition to liver disease (and hence, increased sensitivity to alcohol) also depends on your genetic makeup, if you have infections like hepatitis, and other risk factors… including the fact that you’re a woman. According to the National Institutes of Health, women are more sensitive to alcohol than men because women have less water in their bodies compared to men of similar body weight, so they experience higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol.
Specifically, it’s your liver that takes the brunt of drinking too much, which creates a domino effect of issues throughout the body. “The liver detoxifies the blood. Alcohol in large amounts can destroy liver cells and prevent it from purifying your blood, distributing toxins to the entire body,” Wakim-Fleming says.
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to disease and scarring in the liver (cirrhosis) and other organs, including the heart, pancreas, brain, kidneys, and the gastrointestinal system. And drinking too much can also increase your risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer in women.
While we can’t denying the pleasure of enjoying a mimosa over brunch with your besties or sipping on a chilled glass of rosé on a summer day, drinking can have some serious consequences if it’s done in excess. So if you do choose to indulge in this popular pastime, here are some tips for keeping your liver healthy.
1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Being obese or overweight are both factors that contribute to liver disease besides alcohol consumption. Avoiding foods high in cholesterol is key, and up your fruit and veggie intake.
2. If you drink, do so moderately and avoid exceeding the recommended limit. “Understand what one drink is based on [regarding] the amount and concentration of alcohol ingested. Read the labels because one full glass of beer is not the same as a full glass of wine or whiskey,” Wakim-Fleming notes.
3. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach.Research has shown that alcohol is absorbed faster when drinking on an empty stomach, and that foods with a higher fat content require more time to leave the stomach, allowing alcohol absorption to take place over a longer period of time.
4. Take breaks from drinking alcohol. “Even if you think your liver is healthy, those who drink at least moderately and regularly for years are advised to take a break from alcohol in order to allow [for] healing whatever damage that may have occurred in the liver,” advises Wakim-Fleming. She recommends taking at least a one-year break from drinking every few years. “We tell our patients who are presenting for liver transplant from alcoholic liver disease that they should be sober for two years at least,” she adds.
5. Find out about your family’s genetics and history of liver health. “People have different genes and they can experience alcohol’s effects differently based on them,” says Wakim-Fleming. What this means is that you can’t compare yourself to others when you’re out at the bar; just because your BFF can down three shots and be okay doesn’t mean that you can too.
6. Drink coffee. As if we need an excuse to have even more lattes, research has shown that drinking coffee may help lower the risk for liver disease. But don’t consider this a free pass. “One can’t continue to drink alcohol if they want to improve their liver disease, even if they drink coffee,” warns Wakim-Fleming. “There is no substitute [for] abstinence from alcohol.”
How do you approach drinking? Share your thoughts with us @BritandCo.
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