This post was originally published on September 16, 2016.
In the end, it was my liver that betrayed my hidden alcoholism. I’d been lying to my doctor for years and he’d jumped through plenty of hoops trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. The gout; the trembling hands; the headaches. When my doctor ran some lab work, my liver was what finally sold me out. I’d really punished it, too. I remember thinking that all was lost, that it was simply all downhill from there. I’d simply have to spend the rest of my life with a broken liver (another reason to drink!). Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Turns out, the liver can take a beating and, in many cases, completely bounce back. A recent Sunday Express article confirmed that experts now recommend alcoholic patients follow a specific detox diet to help reverse liver damage.
Before It’s Too Late
The liver, the second-largest organ in the human body, performs quite a few critical jobs. The American Liver Foundation notes that the organ “processes what you eat and drink into energy and nutrients your body can use” and “removes harmful substances from your blood.” That, of course, includes alcohol. When you’re drinking more booze than your liver can handle, however, the organ starts to shut down. Among the many alcohol-induced liver problems are fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. Of the three, fatty liver disease is the most common among alcoholics. It also goes unnoticed until it’s way too late, the Sunday Express observed: “[The disease] doesn’t usually cause any symptoms until the liver has been severely damaged—but symptoms can include feeling sick, weight loss, loss of appetite, yellowing of the eyes and skin, swelling in the ankles and tummy and vomiting blood.” Still want a drink?
The progression from fatty liver disease to cirrhosis isn’t swift, but it’s guaranteed if heavy drinking continues. The American Liver Foundation claims that between “10 and 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis,” which is the most severe of the liver disease stages. It’s “characterized by severe scarring and disruption of the normal structure of the liver” where “hard scar tissue replaces soft healthy tissue.” Before it gets to that point, though, medical experts insist that there’s still a greater-than-average chance the liver can recover. “[It] is the only internal human organ capable of natural regeneration of lost tissue,” one expert said in the Sunday Express story. “As little as 25 percent of a liver can regenerate into a whole liver if minor damage occurs.” This underscores the remarkable resiliency of the organ and should offer hope for people who want to change their lives.
When it comes to restoring the liver, it isn’t just about avoiding the bottle. As Dr. Claire Morrison told the Sunday Express, “reversing the damage made to a liver can be difficult but it isn’t completely impossible—depending on the source of the problem.” Recovering alcoholics with damaged livers need to “steer clear of fatty foods, such as butter, cheese, cream, margarine and meat,” one expert advised. It seems like a no-brainer, but restoring one’s liver to a good, working order is a lot more than just avoiding bad things. It also means adding good things into your system that may never have been there to begin with.
Potassium, for one, is a key to getting things back on track. “The diet of your ancestors was much different than the modern human diet—it was richer in potassium and had much less sodium,” one site pointed out. “The diet has changed, but the body has not. Your body holds on to sodium and is much less sparing of potassium.” A careful balance of potassium is super-important to the body, too. The Sunday Express piece agrees, saying that potassium also “helps to lower your systolic blood pressure, lower your cholesterol and helps support a healthy cardiovascular system.”
Making Lifelong Changes
On top of potassium-rich foods, experts suggest loading up on “all colors of fruits and vegetables” to help detox the liver, noting that “papaya and watermelon are especially useful.” Tomatoes and avocados are also critical to detoxing the liver. The former should be “lightly cooked and must be consumed with a very small drop of cold pressed oil or fish,” while the latter “is good to eat with tomatoes as it has natural plant oils which aid in the absorption of lycopene in tomatoes.” Garlic and onions are good for the liver detox, too. “Herbal teas—four cups per day—of anise, chamomile, fennel, ginger, ginseng, grape seed extract, reishi mushroom and seaweed” are also on the menu, the article says. Overall, consuming “plenty of bottled mineral or filtered water” helps to flush out all the toxins that alcohol has helped build up in the liver.
Additionally, NHS Choices (a UK health website) says that when a liver is damaged, it can’t store glycogen, which provides short-term energy to the body. “When this happens, the body uses its own muscle tissue to provide energy between meals, which leads to muscle wasting and weakness,” the site says, which calls for extra energy and protein. “Healthy snacking between meals can top up your calories and protein. It may also be helpful to eat three or four small meals a day, rather than one or two large meals.” Still, while malnutrition is a widespread problem for recovering alcoholics with damaged livers, all hope isn’t lost. The liver itself is a redeeming metaphor for alcoholics looking to change their lifestyles. There’s still hope and time. Just like the human body, the human spirit is oftentimes stronger than we recognize. Our fates aren’t sealed—we can bounce back. Full lives can be restored and, in many cases, flourish. So long as people are willing to put in the effort. Like anything in recovery, though, these are changes that don’t happen overnight. They happen one step at a time.