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5 Signs Your Liver Is Healing From Alcohol

Alcohol-related liver complications are a serious cause of concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 4.5 million people have a diagnosis of liver disease each year, resulting in 56,585 deaths, the 9th leading cause of death in the United States. Alcoholic liver disease makes up the significant majority of this risk, accounting for 33,098 of liver disease deaths.

Chronic alcohol use puts tremendous strain on your liver, leading to several serious medical complications. Thankfully, your liver has a remarkable capacity for recovery – and most people will see substantial liver healing if they can quit alcohol use and achieve recovery.

What Alcohol Does to Your Liver

To understand how alcohol affects the liver and body, it’s first important to recognize the role of the liver in your overall health. Your liver acts as your body’s built-in detoxification system: cleansing your blood supply from toxic chemicals, breaking down waste, and excreting chemical by-products into bile or urea.

All the blood that leaves the stomach and intestines passes through the liver, where these vital functions take place.

When you drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream through this gastrointestinal tract. Your blood carries the alcohol to the liver, where it immediately begins breaking down alcohol into less harmful metabolites. The chemical breakdown of alcohol happens in three steps:

  1. Blood containing ethanol (pure alcohol) enters the liver
  2. A liver enzyme known as ADH breaks ethanol down into acetaldehyde
  3. A second liver enzyme known as ALDH breaks acetaldehyde into acetate

While acetate is a harmless metabolite that is easily removed from the body, acetaldehyde is highly toxic, carcinogenic, and damaging to liver cells. And while the liver can process acetaldehyde relatively quickly, it has a limit – approximately one alcoholic drink per hour –  and prolonged exposure to acetaldehyde can lead to a number of different damaging effects.

Liver Disease Associated with Alcohol Use

Alcohol use and alcohol use disorders can drastically increase your risk of liver disease. There are three distinct stages of alcoholic liver disease, which delineate the severity of damage caused by alcohol use:

  • Alcoholic Fatty Liver – The first stage of alcoholic liver disease, in this stage fat begins to accumulate on the main working part of the liver. Alcoholic fatty liver is completely reversible.
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis – The next stage of alcoholic liver disease is known as alcoholic hepatitis, which indicates swelling and inflammation of the liver. This can lead to lasting liver damage, though much of this damage is reversible if you stop drinking.
  • Alcoholic Cirrhosis – The final stage of alcoholic liver disease is cirrhosis, or permanent scarring and death of liver cells. Scarred liver tissue cannot continue to function properly and can often be fatal. 

Each stage of alcoholic liver disease is associated with progressively worse health symptoms – ranging from a swollen and painful abdomen, yellowing of the skin and eyes (also known as jaundice), nausea and vomiting, weight loss, confusion, and kidney failure.

As dire as these outcomes may be, your liver has a remarkable capacity for recovery when you stop drinking alcohol. 

Woman holds a sign of a liver indicating it is healing and she holds up her thumb
signs your liver is healing from alcohol

Understanding the Liver Healing Process

Even after decades of chronic alcohol use, the liver has a remarkable capacity for regeneration.

Recent scientific investigations have found that most drinkers who achieve abstinence will find complete or partial liver recovery, particularly if they have not developed alcoholic cirrhosis. 

When the repeated injury of alcohol consumption is removed, the liver can grow and multiply new cells to regenerate to a healthy functioning state. Just as a wound on your skin can heal and recover, so too can your liver.

5 Signs Your Liver is Healing from Alcohol

So how do you know when your liver is starting to heal? There are some telltale signs to look for:

1. Increased Energy Levels

In addition to its role as a detoxifier, the liver is directly involved in the metabolism and generation of energy.

One of the first signs your liver is healing after alcohol is a tangible boost in energy levels, leaving you feeling more productive and motivated in your day-to-day life.

Don’t be alarmed if your energy levels don’t improve straight away.

Quitting alcohol can lead to a common experience of sobriety fatigue, and the very process of liver regeneration requires a great deal of metabolic energy. But given time, you’ll start to feel more alert and energetic once your liver has restored itself.

2. Healthier Skin and Eye Color

Yellowing of the eyes and skin is a key symptom of a damaged liver.

Your liver produces and processes a substance called bilirubin, which has a yellowish pigment and can collect in the layer of fat just beneath your skin. When your liver is overworked, it cannot successfully process this substance – leading to yellowing skin and eyes.

When your liver regains lost functioning, it can successfully process excess bilirubin. This leads to a restoration of healthy skin and eye color and gets you back to looking your best.

woman with healthy skin and eyes smiles
healthy skin and eyes – signs of liver healing

3. Increased Appetite

As your liver heals, it has an easier time metabolizing and digesting food and nutrients. This, in turn, can lead to increased appetite and better absorption of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.

Most people who have experienced significant liver regeneration will also have an easier time managing their weight, as food can be digested properly and natural hunger signals can be restored. 

4. Reduced Abdominal Pain

Painful swelling and inflammation of the liver is one of the first signs of liver disease. People in early stages of liver disease may feel tenderness in the upper right abdomen, just below the rib cage. When this pain starts to disappear, it’s a sign that your liver is healing after alcohol misuse.

5. Clearer Thinking

The liver clears toxins and chemicals from the blood – and a damaged liver can fall behind, leading to buildup up ammonia in the brain. When your liver regains its lost functioning, these chemicals begin to clear, reducing the sensation of brain fog, confusion, or disorientation. 

How Long Does Liver Healing Take?

In general, most people will experience significant liver healing in just two to four weeks after quitting alcohol.

But there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how long it takes your liver to heal. How long you’ve been drinking, the stage of liver disease, and your general overall health can all play a factor in how long it takes to see significant improvement.

If your liver has sustained significant damage from drinking, or you are particularly concerned about how your healing process is going, tracking blood levels with your doctor can be a simple and effective strategy to monitor your progress.

How to Promote Liver Healing

Given time, your liver will heal on its own. But there are a few key things you can do to help speed the process along and start feeling better faster.

If you’ve developed any form of liver disease, no matter the stage, you should make regular appointments with your physician to monitor your progress.

Your doctor can track your blood work, prescribe supportive medications to help your liver in this critical period, and may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian that can provide you with diet and nutrition plans that can aid healing as well.

When meeting with your physician, make sure to discuss any prescribed or over-the-counter medications you may be taking as well. Meds like Tylenol, Advil, or aspirin can all place extra strain on your liver, and you’ll want to check with your doctor whether you should be reducing your dose while your liver heals.

But perhaps the best thing you can do to help your liver in the healing process is to stay sober.

Quitting alcohol isn’t easy – but starting drinking again will only lead to further liver injury and disrupt any healing that’s already taken place so far. 

If you’re struggling to maintain your sobriety, we have several resources that can help you stay on the path. And if you don’t think you can manage it on your own – reaching out for professional help is always a good choice.

If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!

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