Binge Drinking, Alcohol Use More Destructive To Liver Than Previously Believed

First Posted: Dec 17, 2015 12:19 PM EST

A team of researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia have found that chronic alcohol use combined with repeated spats of binge drinking causes much more damage to the liver than we previously believed. Chronic alcohol use and binge drinking are associated with multiple health issues, ranging from unintentional injury and STDs, to neurological damage and liver disease. Beyond health, binge drinking can have drastic economic effects too, with binge drinking-related expenses costing the United States $249 billion in 2010 alone.

Chronic alcohol use, or heavy drinking, is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a sitting, which can result in developing alcohol dependency or Alcohol Use DisorderBinge drinking is perhaps even more damaging, and is the most common form of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States, to the point that one-sixth of U.S. adults binge drinks four times each month. In fact, the older we get, the more we drink. People aged 65 or older reportedly up their binges to five to six times per month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It's not only a problem in the U.S., but it has become a global, far-reaching issue. On a global scale, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for approximately 3.3 million deaths every year, 5.9 percent of all deaths, and can be attributed to 5.1 percent of all disease worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

"Heavy binge drinking by those who habitually consume alcohol is the most common cause of liver damage in chronic alcoholic liver disease," Shivendra Shukla, the Margaret Proctor Mulligan Professor of medical pharmacology and physiology at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said. "We know that this behavior causes large fatty deposits in the liver that ultimately impair the organ's ability to function properly. However, we wanted to understand the mechanism that causes this damage and the extent of the harm. Our research focused on different forms of alcohol abuse and the results of those behaviors."

Shukla and his team took a look a mice to further examine liver injury inflicted solely by chronic alcohol use and repeated binge drinking, as well as the two paired together. The tests took place over four weeks, and showed that mice who were exposed to chronic alcohol use and repeated binges displayed the highest levels of liver damage, according to a press release.

"Either chronic alcohol use or acute repeat binge episodes caused moderate liver damage when compared to the control group not exposed to alcohol," Shukla said. "This outcome came as no surprise. However, in the mice exposed to both chronic use and repeat binge episodes, liver damage increased tremendously. Even more shocking was the extent of fatty deposits in the livers of those exposed to chronic plus binge alcohol. It was approximately 13 times higher than the control group."

Highly amplified fat accumulation was the result of the metabolic changes in the liver, which not only significantly increased fatty deposits in the liver, but increased the stress on the organ while simultaneously decreasing the liver's ability to fight that stress. Chronic or excessive alcohol use is not only associated with liver damage, according to Shukla.

"Drinking alcohol excessively can create an inflammatory response to the liver and other organ systems in the body," Shukla said. "If those organs work at a lower level of function, then a whole host of physiological processes can be affected. It is important for us to understand the extent of damage caused by alcohol abuse, which also can lead to other health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer."

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