Will drinking too much over Christmas damage my liver?
The facts on festive drinking and your health.
Christmas is a special time of year, what with parties, catching up with friends and family, bad TV and good food and drink. A few weeks of overdoing it during the party season, however, can be rough on your health and might leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
But exactly how much harm does regularly drinking too much at Christmas do to your liver and what effect does it have on your health generally? And is the damage permanent?
Chris Day, professor of liver medicine at Newcastle University, says drinking more than 8 units a day (four pints of 4% lager) if you’re a man and over 5 units a day (a couple of 175ml glasses of wine) if you’re a woman for two or three weeks is enough to cause ‘fatty liver’ in most people.“Our liver turns glucose into fat which it sends round the body to store for use when we need it,” explains Chris. “Alcohol stops this happening, so your liver cells just get stuffed full of fat. Your liver gets larger.” If this happens, you’ll feel a vague discomfort in your abdomen because your liver is swollen. You might also feel sick and lose your appetite.
Fortunately, your liver is likely to recover. “Fatty liver will go away again in someone who isn’t a heavy drinker because the liver will repair itself,” says Chris.
But continue to regularly drink above Drinkaware’s recommended daily guidelines of 2-3 units a day for women (equivalent to a 175ml glass of 13% wine) and 3-4 units a day for men (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and it’s bad news for your liver. Fatty liver can develop into hepatitis, when the liver becomes inflamed. This can then lead to cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver from continuous hepatitis.
How alcohol affects the liver
Liver specialist, Chris Day says there are two reasons why alcohol has this effect. Firstly, when our liver tries to break down alcohol the chemical reactions it creates can damage its cells. The liver becomes inflamed because it is trying so hard to repair itself. Secondly, alcohol damages our intestine which then lets toxins into the liver. Blood that the liver normally filters from the bowel also has toxins in it. The liver tries to protect itself against these toxins which damage it and make it inflamed.
The problem is, you won’t know all this is happening. “People can spend 20 years damaging their liver and feel fine until it gets serious,” says Chris. “But two or three heavy sessions a week for a year will increase the chance of liver damage.”
Other health effects of Christmas drinking
Any immediate effects that result from infrequent heavy drinking sessions are temporary and, like fatty liver, will go away. They include damage to your stomach lining which results in diarrhoea or sickness. “And you might feel shaky or anxious because of alcohol’s withdrawal effect on the brain,” says Jonathan Chick, consultant psychiatrist specialising in alcohol dependence. Your mood, skin, weight and sleep will also be negatively affected but you can usually address these with a return to a healthier lifestyle. Drink too much on a regular basis, however, and these short-term effects can become long-term health problems.
Some health consequences of heavy sessions however can be more severe. Binge drinking can have an effect on the heart, causing irregular rhythms. This results in shortness of breath, changes in blood pressure and an increase in the risk of a heart attack, and even sudden death. “Called ‘Holiday Heart Syndrome’, people might feel they are having a heart attack,” says Jonathan. People who have had 15 units (about seven and a half pints of 4% beer) and upwards in one session are vulnerable to Holiday Heart Syndrome, which can result in sudden death.
Longer-term heavy drinking sessions pose serious health problems. Your chances of getting liver and mouth cancer, chronic pancreatitis and diabetes increase. Your mental health can be affected too.
If you are planning to drink this Christmas…
Stick to the recommended guidelines and you’ll reduce the chances of these health consequences. Drinkaware advises men not to regularly drink more than the 3-4 units of alcohol a day (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and women not to regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day (equivalent to a 175ml glass of 13% wine).
Chris Day says his best advice is to try not to drink everyday over the Christmas period. “There’s no doubt that the liver does much better when you give it a break,” he says.
There are different reasons why people drink more at Christmas, of course. “It may be because it’s the time of year when you are mixing with heavy drinking company,” says Jonathan Chick. “Moderate this yourself by avoiding or limiting the amount of time you spend at certain events and or with particular company if you’re likely to drink over the recommended limits.”
And limit your drinking if you’re feeling hurt or upset because it will more than likely damage the relationships you should be celebrating at Christmas time.