Signs Your Liver is Detoxing
There are many reasons why someone would want to go on a detox—some for general health, some to restore better habits, and others to break a cycle of bad habits. One prominent reason to detox alcohol from your body could also be the benefits of removing the negative effects of alcohol on one’s liver. When it comes to alcohol consumption, the idea of liver detoxification can be especially important if a person has developed any sort of unhealthy dependence on alcohol.
Many people of varying ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, professions, and life-stages participate in the use of alcohol. The need to step back and potentially detox, however, comes when the use of alcohol crosses over from moderation to excess.
Causes of Excessive or Binge Drinking
Alcohol has a unique role in our society; it is a legal substance (for those who over the age of 21), and it can absolutely be consumed in a balanced, healthy way. However, alcohol can also be used in such a manner as to create an unhealthy emotional or physical dependency on it. It is not uncommon for someone who is going through a particularly stressful time of life to turn to alcohol as a means of relieving some of that stress; the danger, however, comes when the use of alcohol becomes heavy or excessive, or if a person participates in binge drinking.
While many medical practitioners believe alcohol in moderation can have some positive health benefits, an excessive use of alcohol can lead to multiple health issues, some as severe as permanent liver damage or even death. According to a 2015 study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA):
- 26.9% of adults in the U.S. reported having participated in heavy drinking or binge drinking in the previous month.
- 15.1 million U.S. adults suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder, defined by NIAA as a “chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
Definitions of Heavy or Excessive Alcohol Use
While a person may “feel” the effects of alcohol differently based on multiple factors including age, body weight, gender, ethnic background, food consumption, and the time between drinks, there are certain guidelines for what constitutes heavy or excessive drinking, regardless of a person’s perception of intoxication.
The Mayo Clinic defines heavy or excessive drinking for women as the consumption of more than three drinks in any day or more than seven drinks in the course of a week. For men ages sixty-five or younger, excessive drinking is defined as more than four drinks on any day or more than fourteen drinks within the span of one week (for men who are over the age of 65, the guideline changes to be three drinks in a day or seven drinks within a week).
It is perfectly possible for someone to consume alcohol every day without being addicted to the substance itself; however, one should always be aware of their motives and potential dependence on alcohol. The more frequent a role alcohol plays in your life, the more attention you should pay to your motivations for drinking.
While there are negative effects to heavy drinking (as discussed below), the greatest risks are associated with binge drinking. Once this behavior has started, it can be difficult to control or even learn how to stop binge drinking altogether. Here are some facts about the nature of binge drinking, including its definition and most likely participants:
- Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks within two hours for men.
- According to the Center for Disease Control, one in six US adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge.
- While most people who binge drink are not also alcohol dependent, 90% of those who are prone to the excessive use of alcohol are also prone to binge drinking.
- Binge drinking is more likely to occur with people who are well-educated, or with people who have an average income over $75,000 annually (this may be related to the prevalence of binge drinking on college campuses and among those who have participated in college-aged binge drinking).
Even if someone’s alcohol use increases as a result of stressful situations or difficult life events, and is therefore limited in length, one may still experience some of the side effects of what the American Academy of Family Physicians defines as prolonged alcohol exposure; according to the AAFP, a person may experience withdrawal symptoms after just two weeks of heavy alcohol use. So even if a person is not suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder, he or she can still benefit from a time of detox.
Effects of Excessive Alcohol Use
While there is some evidence of the positive effects of alcohol when consumed in moderation, excessive or binge drinking has no positive effects, and instead has quite a few dangers associated with it, both directly and indirectly related to alcohol’s effects on the body.
Heavy drinking can lead to:
- Increased risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and liver.
- Pancreatitis and resulting hormonal imbalances.
- Psychiatric problems including depression, anxiety, or suicidal behaviors (alcohol can also exacerbate these if they are preexisting conditions).
- Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (heart muscle damage leading to heart failure).
- Increased risk of stroke.
- High blood pressure.
- Liver diseases including (but not limited to) fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis.
- Accidental injury due to mental or physical impairment.
- Death from alcohol, either by damage done to the body over time, or due to accidents while intoxicated.
What is a Detox?
There are many forms of detox or detoxification. As the name suggests, detoxification is the body’s process of removing toxins from the bloodstream of organs; the first step of this process is to stop introducing the toxins from one’s diet or daily routine. While there are many theories about the health benefits of detoxing from substances like sugar, wheat, caffeine, etc., a few things are common in most forms of liver detoxification: a body going through detox will experience some form of withdrawal before the more positive effects take place.
A healthy, functioning liver is always performing a type of detox for your body—filtering out harmful elements such as environmental toxins, chemicals, or pollutants so that they do not affect the rest of your body. If, however, you use alcohol excessively, your liver can never fully metabolize (and therefore remove) the ethanol from your system since it is constantly working to remove new supplies of alcohol being put into your body. Abstaining from alcohol can allow your liver time to remove the ethanol fully from your system; it is imperative to understand that this process of detoxification, however, can only take place if no more alcohol is introduced and the liver is allowed to complete its natural function. If not, you are putting your body at risk of disease, liver failure, and other health complications.
There are two options when it comes to an alcohol detox—quitting all alcohol abruptly (this sort of immediate abstaining from alcohol or other substances is commonly referred to as going “cold turkey”), or a gradual reduction of consumption or tapering off. The level or type of detox you undertake can affect the symptoms of withdrawal you experience. It’s important to note that quitting alcohol cold turkey can be very dangerous if your body has developed a dependence on the substance.
Signs Your Liver Is Detoxing
If you suspect that you have used alcohol excessively and decide to abstain from the further use of alcohol, your liver will begin detoxing from the absence of alcohol within approximately eight hours of your last alcoholic drink. The signs of your liver detoxing change depending on the level (frequency and amount) of alcohol you have consumed. The American Addiction Centers website breaks down the levels of alcohol withdrawal into three stages, starting with the more common signs of your liver detoxing, and increasing to more severe withdrawal symptoms.
The stages are as follows:
- Stage One: Insomnia, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, and abdominal pain (again, this stage can begin within eight hours of the last consumption of alcohol).
- Stage Two: Increased body temperature, changes in heart rate, raised blood pressure, and potential mental confusion, fatigue, or brain fog (this stage generally begins twenty-four to seventy-two hours after the last consumption of alcohol).
- Stage Three: Hallucinations, seizures, and auditory or physical agitation (this stage generally begins two to four days after the last drink).
Most people will not experience stage three’s withdrawal symptoms when detoxing the liver; these sort of hallucinations from alcohol, seizures or tremors, and agitation is normally only experienced by those who are suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder. If you find yourself dealing with level two symptoms, you are likely suffering from Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS); this is the most severe level of withdrawal, and should be done with the awareness and potential surveillance of a medical or addiction professional. It is very easy for stage two withdrawal to turn into stage three withdrawal, so it would be wise not to attempt to go through stage two without medical supervision.
If you think you might be progressing past stage one symptoms, it may be best to complete your detox at an alcohol rehab center or as part of a larger program. The symptoms of stages two and three can have effects on your vital organs, and they can rapidly escalate into serious medical conditions. While the overall desire to detox is good, it is important to make sure that you do so with the full awareness of the long and potentially harmful process you are undertaking.
Detoxing in A Treatment Center
While some of the physical aspects of detox (especially those experienced during stage one) can be managed fairly well at home, it is critical to recognize the complexity of detoxing, and to have a plan for dealing with the potential emotional or psychological effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Some people who have participated in excessive drinking for long periods of time may experience something called delirium tremens (DTs), which are a type of psychotic episode that may include tremors, seizures, hallucinations, disorientation, or can even lead to heart failure. Obviously, this sort of withdrawal can be extremely dangerous if undertaken without medical supervision; if a person begins to experience DTs, he or she may be a danger to him or herself or others.
If you choose to do a detox, but you suspect that you have a physical or emotional dependency on alcohol that goes beyond a moderate use, it may be best to complete your detox as part of a treatment program that includes the guidance of both medical professionals and professional counselors. This will create more opportunities for safe, long-lasting results from your detox, as well as providing a community of support to help address any lingering emotional habits that may result in further excessive drinking.
Ways to Maintain Sobriety
One of the best ways to avoid the dangers of excessive use of alcohol is to be aware of other habits and stress-relievers in your life. While alcohol can be both celebratory and conciliatory, there are many other ways to destress or engage socially. Here are some healthy lifestyle choices that may help reduce participation in excessive or binge drinking:
- Participating in regular exercise that is both engaging and enjoyable.
- Getting sufficient amounts of quality sleep.
- Practicing meditation and mindfulness.
- Picking up new hobbies—gardening, cooking classes, reading groups, music lessons, etc.
- Volunteering to work with those less fortunate than yourself.
- Spending time in nature.
- Developing or connecting to your spirituality.
- Seeing a counselor or therapist to uncover any hidden motivations toward excessive use of alcohol.
- Eating a healthy diet and drinking enough water to fuel yourself throughout the day.
- Avoiding places where (or people with whom) drinking excessively is encouraged or expected.
- Considering any necessary changes in lifestyle that could be causing excess and inordinate stress (i.e. an unhealthy workplace environment or toxic relationships)
While all of the things listed above are not cures for current excessive use of alcohol, they can be useful ways to avoid the stress that can often lead to an emotional dependency on alcohol—an emotional dependency that can lead to physical dependency. It is true that going on a hike or reading a book is not the same exact feeling as having a drink—but learning how to include other stress-relieving activities in your life could be the difference between living a balanced life catered to your health and well-being and living a life dependent on the use of alcohol.