Heavy Alcohol Consumption And Liver Disease

More people die from liver disease linked to alcoholism, even if alcohol consumption is stable or falling. What could be the cause?

Researchers behind a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine 1 investigated this: Could metabolic syndrome be a reason why more people with high alcohol intake develop liver cancer?

Metabolic syndrome is a collective term that includes excess weight and increased stomach circumference, high blood pressure, high insulin values, ​​and unfavorable levels of fats in the blood. Among other things, these disturbances increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, angina, heart attacks, narrow arteries in the legs, and stroke.

The new study, conducted at Keck Medicine of USC, shows that metabolic syndrome more than doubles the risk of advanced liver disease among heavy drinkers. 

In other words: heavy alcohol use can be far more harmful to the liver for people with metabolic syndrome than for those who do not suffer from it. 

Works together

Brian P. Lee is a hepatologist and lead author behind the study. He says in the news release from Keck Medicine of USC 2  that the research they have now done suggests that metabolic syndrome and alcohol work together in such a way that they increase the effect of alcohol on the liver, and more than double the risk of liver disease among people who drink a lot of alcohol. 

He emphasizes that alcohol is harmful to the liver for everyone, but especially for this group.

Heavy alcohol consumption was defined in this study as two units per day for women and three units per day for men.

Liver disease increases

The background for the study was this: The researchers wanted to investigate the connection between alcohol, metabolic syndrome, and liver damage when they saw that between 2009-2018, deaths from alcohol-related liver disease in the USA increased by more than 30 percent. At the same time, heavy alcohol consumption remained stable or reduced.

Over the past 20 years, the number of Americans with metabolic syndrome has increased significantly. Previous research has shown that metabolic syndrome can cause abnormalities in the liver.

The researchers now therefore conclude that metabolic syndrome could be an important contributor to the increase in liver damage .

Increased fat in the liver

The researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in this study.

Here they saw a small increase in liver damage among people with heavy alcohol use without metabolic syndrome, while the greatest increase in liver damage was found in those with combined heavy alcohol use and metabolic syndrome.

Lee says the increased risk of liver damage from drinking is a result of an increase in the amount of fat in the liver. A healthy liver contains less than five percent fat – if it is more, it can lead to inflammation and cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer, and liver failure.

  1. Lee P B, Dodge L J, et.al. National Trends in Alcohol Use, Metabolic Syndrome, and Liver Disease From 1999 to 2018. Annals of Internal Medicine 2023. www.acpjournals.org 
  2. Heavy drinking poses an even greater risk for one in three Americans, Keck Medicine of USC, 2023 news.keckmedicine.org