Barbara Burke

Health Options

By Alan Titchenal & Joannie Dobbs

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Booze abuse the
bane of your liver

WHAT'S the busiest organ in the body? You might say the heart or the lungs since they are always moving, beating, and pumping. But, from a chemistry perspective, the liver is the busiest organ.

Your liver repackages, stores, and ships out nutrients to meet the needs of other parts of the body. It pulls a myriad of chemical stunts to disarm toxic substances and ship them out to the kidneys in a form fit for easy disposal. In addition, it is the recycling center in the body. The components of worn-out blood cells and some bacteria are broken down and re-used to make new cells.

The liver can handle quite a load without complaining. However, even this amazing chemical wizard can be overwhelmed. Liver problems develop when we exceed the liver's capacity to handle toxic substances.

The most common adversary for the liver is alcohol. In most people, the liver handles small to moderate amounts of alcohol with no problem. In fact, it uses the alcohol as an energy source, getting about seven calories for each gram. When the liver doesn't need the energy, it can convert alcohol to fat.

However, it takes time for the liver to break down alcohol. It needs one to two hours to break down the alcohol in two typical drinks. When the amount of alcohol consumed exceeds the liver's capacity to break it down, the blood levels of alcohol increase. This profoundly affects the brain and other parts of the nervous system.

LOW levels of alcohol in the body typically make us feel less inhibited and decrease our powers of judgement. High levels impair basic body functions like breathing and the beating of the heart. Nearly every year, at least one college student dies from alcohol toxicity. Students get carried away with a "chug-a-lug" contest, pass out, and nobody realizes their vital functions have stopped until it is too late.

About half of the people with Asian or South American ancestry have extremely low levels of a chemical in the liver that is involved in the breakdown of alcohol. These people feel the effects of alcohol at much lower doses and experience a flushing of the face and increased heart rate. It would take a significantly lower dose of alcohol to kill them.

Fortunately, it is not too common for people to consume enough alcohol at one time to kill themselves. It is much more common for people to drink too much alcohol on a regular basis over a period of years. This gradually takes a toll on the liver, eventually resulting in the destruction of liver tissue. Being a tough organ, the liver will struggle along for years without complaint. By the time a person starts to experience symptoms, a great deal of the liver is already lost and there is no return to normal function.

Environmental toxins and drugs are handled differently by the liver of a chronic alcohol abuser. Normal doses of common drugs can cause serious problems. For example, acetaminophen, commonly known by the brand name Tylenol, can cause serious damage to the liver of a heavy drinker. Some researchers call this "acetaminophen-alcohol syndrome."

Alcohol can interact with other drugs like antidepressants and little is known about problems with combining herbal products with alcohol. The best policy is to ask your pharmacist about any possible problems caused by combining any prescription, nonprescription or herbal product with alcohol.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a sports nutritionalist in the
Department of Food Service and Human Nutrition,
University of Hawaii-Manoa.

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a food and nutrition consultant
and owner of Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.
She is also responsible for the nutritional analyses indicated
by an asterisks in this section.

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