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How Does Binge Drinking Damage the Liver?

Anyone who regularly consumes alcohol in excessive amounts can eventually develop moderate, severe or even life-threatening degrees of liver damage. Researchers are well aware that long-term heavy drinkers who also participate in the drunkenness-producing, short-term practice called binge drinking can substantially worsen the overall amount of liver damage they ultimately sustain. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Hepatology International, researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine explored the underlying reasons why binge drinking produces this additive effect. The researchers concluded that untreated binge drinking can actually lead to liver-damaging changes in the body’s DNA.

Alcohol and Liver Damage

Your alcohol intake has a direct impact on your liver, the organ mainly responsible for breaking down toxic substances circulating in your bloodstream. If you drink only in light or moderate amounts, you will probably not exceed your liver’s breakdown capacity. However, if you regularly drink in heavy amounts, the repeated accumulation of alcohol in your bloodstream can trigger liver damage. Doctors commonly refer to alcohol-related liver damage as alcoholic liver disease. There are three partially overlapping stages to this condition, known as fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. People with fatty liver disease have an unusual, potentially treatable buildup of fat in their liver tissue. People with alcoholic hepatitis have an unusual buildup of liver fat combined with potentially treatable liver tissue inflammation. People with alcoholic cirrhosis have permanently scarred liver tissue that no longer functions properly; they may also have alcoholic hepatitis. Both alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis can produce fatal changes in liver health. Alcoholic liver disease most commonly appears in people who regularly abuse alcohol for a decade or longer.

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking gets its name because participants drink heavily in short episodes (i.e., binges) that produce a legal level of intoxication within a couple of hours. Men must usually consume at least five standard servings of beer, wine or hard liquor to reach or surpass the binging threshold, while women must usually consume at least four standard servings of alcohol. (The size of a standard serving depends on the type of alcohol in question.) Binge drinking participation is most heavily concentrated among young people between the ages of 18 and 34, although older adults and younger teens also engage in the practice. In addition to liver damage, problems linked to alcohol binging include fatal alcohol poisoning, heightened exposure to accidental or purposeful injury, increased chances of involvement in unsafe sex and increased risks for heart disease. Anyone who regularly binge drinks also has substantially increased odds of developing diagnosable alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse/alcoholism).

How Does Binge Drinking Worsen Liver Damage?

In the study published in Hepatology International, the University of Missouri researchers used laboratory experiments on rats to explore the ways in which binge drinking episodes add to the liver damage caused by a sustained pattern of heavy drinking. Specifically, the researchers looked at the effect that binge drinking has on specialized proteins, called histones, which normally protect human DNA from undergoing destructive change. The researchers fed a group of rats a steady diet of an alcohol-containing liquid for one month and then exposed the animals to an additional, drunkenness-producing amount of alcohol three times over the span of 36 hours. They looked for signs of histone damage in the rats four hours after the final binging session ended. The researchers concluded that, in combination with regular heavy drinking, binge drinking leads to an alteration of normal histone function. In turn, this alteration leads to a loss of the body’s ability to keep individual units of DNA intact and working properly. This change in DNA function essentially causes the body to “misread” the genetic instructions responsible for maintaining liver health and produce extra copies of DNA. In turn, this improper DNA copying process apparently leads to liver inflammation and may eventually contribute to cirrhosis or even the onset of liver cancer. The study’s authors note that binge drinking-related liver damage may ultimately have a much more widespread negative impact on the health of affected individuals. This is true because liver damage can trigger a cascade effect and lead to significant damage in the function of other key organs or organ systems, including the brain, the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels) and the kidneys. The authors believe that their findings may contribute to the development of improved treatments for liver problems that stem from excessive alcohol consumption.

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