Alcohol Misuse or Not, Your Liver Is Still in Danger

In some ways, America’s inescapable fast food advertisements are just as dangerous as drug promotion—NAFLD is a significant risk of obesity that can result from frequent fast food consumption.

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It is no surprise that excessive alcohol consumption is the driving cause of liver damage. Not only is this cause-and-effect relationship taught in schools around the world, but it is also advertised everywhere, from subway ads and healthcare clinics to restaurants serving alcoholic beverages. 

The liver is a vital organ that breaks down and filters out harmful substances in the blood and manufactures the proteins, enzymes, and hormones the body uses to ward off infections. It is also responsible for cleaning the blood, producing bile for digestion, and storing glycogen for energy. Thus, the liver processes over 90 percent of consumed alcohol; the rest exits the body through urine, sweat, and breathing. It takes the body approximately an hour to process one alcoholic beverage. With each drink, the time it takes to process the alcohol increases along with the person’s blood alcohol content. The liver can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time. When someone has too much to drink, the alcohol left unprocessed by the liver circulates through the bloodstream. By traveling through veins, alcohol is eventually stored in the liver. However, each time the liver filters alcohol, some of its cells die. Of course, the liver can develop new cells. Still, alcohol misuse over many years can reduce the liver’s ability to regenerate, resulting in severe and permanent liver damage, known as cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis is the severe scarring of the liver. This process is caused by continuous, long-term liver damage through various means. When the liver is damaged, it creates scar tissue, which replaces healthy tissue and prevents it from working correctly. Though the liver is scarred, it tries to repair itself, creating more scar tissue. As cirrhosis progresses, liver damage increases and more scar tissue forms, causing the liver to stop functioning.  

Furthermore, those with cirrhosis have an increased risk of liver cancer, which worsens health even more; most people who develop liver cancer already have some evidence of cirrhosis. Since cirrhosis is a terminal disease—an illness or condition that cannot be cured—it ultimately leads to death. However, there are ways to manage cirrhosis symptoms and slow its progression through medications like ursodiol. Ursodiol is customarily used for primary biliary cirrhosis, which is when the bile ducts (thin tubes from the liver to the small intestine) become damaged. When this happens, bile backs up into the liver, causing damage to liver cells. This damage can lead to liver failure, but ursodiol works by decreasing the production of cholesterol and dissolving the cholesterol in bile to decrease the toxicity of the bile acids that accumulate during primary biliary cirrhosis.

Though excessive alcohol consumption is one of the most common causes of liver cirrhosis, it isn't the only one, as infections such as Hepatitis B can also play a significant role in developing cirrhosis. Hepatitis B is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluids from a person infected with the virus enter the body of someone who is not infected. The inflammation caused by the Hepatitis B infection can lead to extensive liver scarring, impairing the liver's ability to function. Nevertheless, even with vaccines against these infections, people who don’t misuse alcohol, children, and those with no family history of liver problems still develop liver cirrhosis. One of the main causes of this is the consumption of fast food. 

High fast food consumption is a major issue, as it leads to Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), a growing problem worldwide. As its name suggests, NAFLD is a condition where fat builds up in the liver. The exact cause is not entirely understood, but it is often associated with clinical states such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Some individuals with NAFLD can develop nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), an aggressive form of fatty liver disease, which is marked by liver inflammation because of the excessive fat that accumulates in the liver. This may progress to advanced scarring and liver failure. This damage is similar to the damage caused by heavy alcohol use, even though no alcohol is consumed.

As mentioned, NAFLD is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that obesity and type 2 diabetes are common in Western nations, especially the United States, with over 37 million Americans having diabetes and approximately 90 to 95 percent of those having type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes most often develops in adults, but more and more children, teens, and young adults have developed it over the last few years. 

The primary risk factors for type 2 diabetes are genetics and lifestyle. Though family history plays a significant role in the development of type 2 diabetes, it is primarily caused by excess weight from unhealthy diets. On average, Americans eat fast food one to three times a week, and one-third of Americans eat fast food on any given day. With such prominent statistics, it is no surprise that obesity is common. As obesity causes fat buildup, it goes hand in hand with NAFLD, in which an excessive amount of fat is stored in the liver. With more fat throughout the body, the liver absorbs more fat from the intestine and other parts of the body. With too much fat absorbed by the liver, it loses its ability to change fat into a form that can be eliminated. Thus, it does not process and break down fats as it usually should, causing NASH, a disease caused by excessive alcohol consumption and as potent as liver failure. This is because, with excess fat, NASH causes liver tissue to inflame and turn into scar tissue (fibrosis), which can prevent the liver from functioning correctly or cause cirrhosis.

Though the risks of alcohol consumption are widely advertised, fast food consumption is far less regulated despite its proven dangers. In some ways, America’s inescapable fast food advertisements are just as dangerous as drug promotion—NAFLD is a significant risk of obesity that can result from frequent fast food consumption. Fast food needs to be treated the same way as alcohol—it should be controlled. In the United States, NAFLD has already been shown to be the most common form of chronic liver disease, affecting about a quarter of the population.