Alcohol Is Good for Most Common Liver Disease in the US
This may sound unusual, but a moderate amount of alcohol can be beneficial for people who have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD), which is the most common liver disease in the United States. This finding comes from a national group of investigators headed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease?
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease affects up to one-quarter of people in the United States, yet many people have never heard of the disease, realize they are at risk, or recognize the symptoms, so here’s a brief introduction.
The liver is a multifunctional organ, processing food into energy and nutrients the body can utilize while also ridding the body of toxins and other damaging substances from the blood. A healthy liver weighs about three pounds, and 5% to 10% of that weight is fat.
However, if the liver accumulates excessive fat in its cells that is not caused by alcohol, the result is a condition called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. NAFLD usually develops in people who have diabetes, who are overweight or obese, or who have high cholesterol or high triglycerides.
NALFD can also develop in people who experience rapid weight loss and who have poor dietary habits. People with NALFD are also twice as likely to die from coronary heart disease than from liver disease.
Although most people with NAFLD experience few or no symptoms, the disease can progress to a form called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which has an increased risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver-related death. Individuals with NASH are 10 times more likely to develop cirrhosis, a disease that kills about 27,000 Americans every year.
Alcohol may help the liver
It appears drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can help prevent NASH. To come to this conclusion, the investigators evaluated 600 liver biopsies of patients with NAFLD, none of whom averaged more than two alcoholic drinks per day or engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a day) at least once a month.
Analysis of the data revealed the following:
- People who drank no more than two drinks daily had half the chance of developing NASH than people who did not drink alcohol. The researchers speculated alcohol may be helpful because it can improve insulin sensitivity, it has anti-inflammatory benefits, and it can increase good cholesterol levels.
- Patients with NAFLD who were moderate drinkers (2 drinks or less daily) experienced less severe liver scarring than did people who never drank.
The study did not make a distinction among the type of alcohol consumed, nor did it include anyone younger than 21 years old.
If symptoms of NAFLD do develop, they can include fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice, itching, fluid retention and swelling in the legs (edema) and abdomen (ascites), and mental confusion. No medical treatments have been developed for NAFLD, although eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help prevent liver damage or reverse it in early stages. Curcumin has been named as possibly being beneficial.
According to Jeffrey Schwimmer, MD, the study’s senior author and associate professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Diego, people with cirrhosis or viral hepatitis should not consume even small amounts of alcohol. However, limitations on alcohol consumption “may not be applicable to all forms of liver disease,” he noted.
Schwimmer explained that “Physicians need to look at their patient’s overall health, their CVD risk, their liver status, whether they’re already drinking modestly or not.” Once doctors consider all the factors, Schwimmer noted “I suspect modest alcohol consumption will be an appropriate recommendation for many patients, but clearly not all.”
According to this study, many individuals who have the most common liver disease could benefit from drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, but that’s a decision individuals should reach only after consulting with their physician.
American Liver Foundation
University of California, San Diego School of Medicine