Alcohol-Related Liver Disease: Symptoms, Treatment and More

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Because most lipids in hepatocytes are stored in lipid droplets, these organelles must first be degraded to extract the lipids for their subsequent oxidation. Breakdown of lipid droplets is accomplished by lipophagy, a specialized form of the intracellular process that degrades cytoplasmic components (i.e., autophagy). During lipophagy, lipid droplets are engulfed within double- membrane–bound vacuoles called autophagosomes. These vacuoles transport the lipid-droplet cargo to lysosomes, where they are degraded by lipid-digesting enzymes (i.e., lipases), releasing free fatty acids that then undergo β-oxidation inside mitochondria. The rates of autophagy reportedly are retarded by chronic ethanol consumption, at least in part because ethanol is thought to cause faulty lysosome biogenesis.

  • Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and cytochrome P450 2E1 (CYP2E1) each catalyze ethanol oxidation, producing acetaldehyde.
  • The clinical course of ALD is influenced by alcohol abstinence ( 5,6 ).
  • Patients with alcohol-related fatty liver disease, for example, usually do not have any symptoms.

The liver sustains the greatest degree of tissue injury by heavy drinking because it is the primary site of ethanol metabolism. Chronic and excessive alcohol consumption produces a wide spectrum of hepatic lesions, the most characteristic of which are steatosis, hepatitis, and fibrosis/cirrhosis. Steatosis is the earliest response to heavy drinking and is characterized by the deposition of fat in hepatocytes. Steatosis can progress to steatohepatitis, which is a more severe, inflammatory type of liver injury.

Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis

The process of metabolizing alcohol can result in the production of substances that damage liver cells. It can also lead to the production of abnormal levels of fats, which are stored in the liver. Finally, alcohol ingestion can also cause liver inflammation and fibrosis (the formation of scar tissue). In its advanced stages, alcohol-related liver disease is a serious, life-threatening condition. In 2019, for instance, alcohol-related liver disease resulted in the death of approximately 37,000 people in the U.S.

Recently, it was reported that HSCs also play a dual (i.e., stage-dependent) role in the regulation of liver inflammation (Fujita et al. 2016). An important function of HSCs is to transmit signals from sinusoid cells to the liver parenchyma. The proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines produced by activated KCs stimulate the production of proinflammatory cytokines by HSCs. In addition, LPS also can directly activate HSCs through TLR4 to promote the secretion of proinflammatory cytokines. The dual role of KCs in the regulation of inflammation is not only related to production of proinflammatory substances.

Patient Instructions

Of the biochemical tests, mean corpuscular volume, aminotransferases, and γ-glutamyl transferase are sensitive tests, but lack specificity in patients with cirrhosis (34). Carbohydrate-deficient transferrin combined with γ-glutamyl transferase has sensitivity of about 75–90%. However, the levels of carbohydrate-deficient transferrin may be confounded with increasing disease severity and active smoking (35). Newer biomarkers using metabolites of alcohol such as ethyl glucuronide can reveal alcohol use up to 3–4 days after the last alcohol drink (36). However, due to its high sensitivity, it can yield false-positive results with exposure to alcohol containing medications and hand sanitizers containing small amounts of ethanol (37).

alcoholic liver disease

However, more data on the efficacy of N-acetylcysteine in severe AH patients are needed before recommending its routine use in practice. The mechanisms of these findings are speculated to be due to blocking the beneficial effects of tumor necrosis factor on hepatic regeneration (128). Patients with moderate or severe alcohol withdrawal should be closely monitored in an intensive care unit (ICU), where vital signs, volume status, and neurological function are monitored on a regular basis. Algorithm for diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD) using AUDIT tool and on management of early alcoholic liver disease (ALD).

How is alcohol-associated liver disease treated?

Treatment also involves dietary changes and medications to reduce inflammation. Severe alcoholic hepatitis can come on suddenly, such as after binge drinking, and can be life threatening. If someone with this condition has alcohol use disorder, a healthcare provider will need to set up a treatment plan.

They also must abstain from alcohol for 6 months before being considered for liver transplantation. Data show that fewer than 20 percent of patients with histories of alcohol use as the primary cause of end-stage liver disease receive liver transplants (Lucey 2014). However, patient and organ survival is excellent in this patient population, with considerable improvement in their quality of life (Singal et al. 2012, 2013). Following transplantation, ALD patients return to consuming alcohol at rates similar to those transplanted for other reasons, although ALD patients may consume greater amounts (Bergheim et al. 2005). Because all transplant recipients exhibit increased levels of alcohol use over time, post-transplant interventions are deemed extremely valuable in supporting patients to maintain abstinence (Donnadieu-Rigole et al. 2017). Excessive alcohol consumption is a global healthcare problem with enormous social, economic, and clinical consequences, accounting for 3.3 million deaths in 2012 (World Health Organization 2014).


H.K.S. has received lecture fees from the Falk Foundation and research grants from Octapharma. Has received lecture fees and advisory board fees from Genfit, Gilead Sciences, Intercept Pharmaceuticals and Merck. She is also the Policy Councillor for the European Association for the Study of the Liver. Has received honoraria and grants for research from D&A Pharma SAS and Lundbeck Limited. He was also principal investigator in one of the nalmefene pivotal studies, investigator in the sodium oxybate trial and Spanish coordinator of the acamprosate trial (Adisa study).

  • Though rare, liver cancer can develop from the damage that occurs with cirrhosis.
  • In fact, one-third of patients with asymptomatic forms of ASH have significant liver fibrosis and the presence of advanced fibrosis determines the long-term outcome.
  • Therefore, it’s vital for those with any stage of ALD to maintain a healthy diet.

While the early stages may have no symptoms, later stages can cause symptoms such as fatigue, swelling in the hands and legs, jaundice, loss of appetite, and weakness. Many people with ALD are malnourished (lacking proper nutrition) due to a variety of factors, such as lack of eating, vomiting, and malabsorption (difficulty absorbing nutrients from food). In general, the more severe the ALD, the more malnourished someone becomes.

If the alcoholic liver disease is not treated, it can progress to later stages which include alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver. In people with liver failure, the liver completely ceases to function. This can be an outcome of advanced-stage liver disease and often means that a liver transplant is the only option for prolonged survival. A liver transplant is a complicated procedure that depends on a donor’s availability. In 2015, 16.5% of all liver transplants in the United States occurred due to alcoholic liver disease, making it the third most common reason for transplants behind chronic hepatitis C and liver cancer.

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