Too Much Drinking, Weight May Harm Liver

FRIDAY April 26, 2013 -- Being overweight and drinking too much alcohol can cause severe harm to the liver, two new studies warn.

One study found that overweight and obese women who were heavy drinkers had a significantly increased risk of developing and dying from chronic liver disease. The other study found an increased risk of liver cancer in people with alcoholic cirrhosis who also have fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes and are overweight or obese.

The first study included more than 107,000 women in the United Kingdom. They were classified as having either a low or high body mass index (BMI, a measure of body fat based on height and weight), and low or high alcohol consumption. Low was between zero and 15 units of alcohol per week while high was more than 15 units per week. According to the U.K.'s National Health Service, 15 units of alcohol per week would work out to a little more than six pints of beer or nine small glasses of wine weekly.

Women with a high BMI and high alcohol intake were much more likely to have chronic liver disease than other women in the study, which was presented Thursday at the International Liver Congress in the Netherlands.

"These findings will have a significant impact on how we can help millions of people across the world at risk of developing liver disease," Dr. Daniele Prati, a member of the scientific committee of the European Association for the Study of the Liver, said in an association news release.

"Women are at particular risk as they are twice as sensitive as men to alcohol-related liver damage and developing a more severe form of the disease at lower doses with shorter durations of alcohol consumption," he explained.

"Based on this research we know that a person with low BMI and high alcoholic intake has a greater risk of developing chronic liver disease compared to a woman with a high BMI who doesn't drink very much," Prati said. More research is needed, he added, "but this is an important first step in the right direction."

While the new study found an association with overweight, heavy drinking and liver disease in women, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

The second study, also presented at the International Liver Congress, looked at the risk of liver cancer in 100 patients who underwent liver transplants because they had alcoholic end-stage liver disease.

Liver cancer occurred in 54 percent of patients who had been frequently overweight and in 43 percent of those with diabetes, compared with 14 percent of those who were not overweight and 22 percent of those without diabetes, the investigators found.

Fifty percent of patients who had fatty liver disease and were overweight, obese or had type 2 diabetes had liver cancer, compared with 6 percent of those without these conditions.

"These findings show patients suffering from alcoholic cirrhosis who also have a history of fatty liver disease, obesity or type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing liver cancer," Prati said. "The results will be useful to improve the management of patients with cirrhosis, and to identify cancer at early stages."

Because the new research was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The American Liver Foundation outlines 25 ways to love your liver.

Posted: April 2013


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