According to Greek mythology, Zeus punished Prometheus for giving fire to humans. He chained Prometheus and set an eagle to feast on his liver. Each night the liver grew again, and each day the eagle returned to its feast. In reality, can a liver really grow back?
The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body. It is needed for hundreds of bodily processes, including breaking down toxins like alcohol. As it is the first organ to “see” the alcohol that has been ingested, it is not surprising that it is the most susceptible to the effects of alcohol. However, other organs, including the brain and heart, can also be damaged by long-term excessive alcohol use.
As a liver specialist, I encounter people with alcohol-related liver disease every day. It is a spectrum of disease that ranges from the accumulation of fat in the liver (fatty liver) to the formation of scars (cirrhosis) and usually does not cause any symptoms until the final stages of damage.
At first, alcohol makes the liver fatty. This fat causes the liver to become inflamed. In response, it tries to heal itself by producing scar tissue. If this continues unchecked, the entire liver can become a meshwork of scars with small islands of “good” liver in between – cirrhosis.
In the final stages of cirrhosis, when the liver fails, people may turn yellow (jaundice), swell with fluid, and become drowsy and confused. This is serious and can be fatal.
Most people who regularly drink more than the recommended limit will have a fatty liver. What limit is this? About six pints (each pint is 570 ml) of beer of normal alcohol content (4% Alcohol By Volume) per week or about six medium glasses (175 ml) of wine (14% ABV). Prolonged and intense alcohol use increases the risk of developing scars and cirrhosis .
Fortunately, there is good news. In people with fatty liver, after just two or three weeks of giving up alcohol, the liver can heal and look and function like new .
In people with liver inflammation or mild scarring, even seven days after quitting alcohol, there are noticeable reductions in liver fat, inflammation, and scarring . Stopping alcohol use for several months allows the liver to recover and return to normal.
In heavy drinkers with more severe scarring or liver failure, giving up alcohol for several years reduces the chance of worsening liver failure and death . However, people who drink heavily can be physically dependent on alcohol and stopping suddenly can cause alcohol withdrawal.
In its mild form, it causes tremors and sweating. But if it’s severe, it can cause hallucinations, seizures and even death. Abstinence is never recommended for heavy drinkers, who should seek medical advice on how to safely give up alcohol.
Quitting drinking also has positive effects on sleep, brain function and blood pressure .
However, alcohol is not the only cause of health problems. Giving it up has many health benefits, but it is not a panacea. It should be seen as part of a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise.
So, to answer the question posed by the myth of Prometheus, the liver has an incredible power to repair itself after it has been damaged. But it cannot grow back like new if it has already suffered severe scarring.
If you stop drinking and just have a fatty liver, it can go back to normal quickly. If you already had a scarred liver (cirrhosis), stopping alcohol consumption will allow some healing and improved function, but it will not be able to undo all the damage already done.
If you want to take care of your liver, don’t drink alcohol. But if you need to, drink in moderation and have two to three alcohol-free days a week. This way, you won’t need to rely on the liver’s magical self-healing power to stay healthy.
– Ashwin Dhanda, Associate Professor of Hepatology, University of Plymouth