The festive season is usually when we drink the most, but alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for liver disease. As January is Love Your Liver Awareness Month, there’s never been a more important time to understand the risk factors for liver disease and how you can care for, and show your liver some love. We talk to the British Liver Trust to help inform.  

In 2020, 10,883 adults died of liver disease, which is approximately 30 people every day. Hospital admissions for alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) have doubled in the last 10 years and in 20/21, over 8,000 women were admitted with ARLD.

Sadly, people with liver disease often don’t have any symptoms until it has progressed and is far too late for treatment or intervention. 

The most effective way to reduce the risk of liver disease is to make lifestyle changes to keep it healthy – before damage can occur or when it’s in the early stages and can be reversed. It’s important to understand and consume alcohol within safe limits.

You may think that you’re not at risk of developing liver disease but Tammy and Debbie’s stories below, illustrate just how quickly things can change.  

Tammy very nearly lost her life due to alcohol related liver disease. In 2020, she spent 4 weeks in hospital and may need to have a liver transplant from the effects from years of drinking. Here’s her story:

“Six years before I was diagnosed, I was warned by the doctors that if I did not stop drinking this would happen, but I was ignorant in thinking that it would not happen to me.

Not ready or wanting to admit to the fact that I had a drinking problem, I continued as normal. Not every day, but when I started I would binge and party for days.

After losing many family members, especially my close cousin Sheila who was like my sister, I started to drink practically everyday. I was in hospital twice and each time I came out I would stay sober for three months but return to drink.

In July 2020 I was hospitalised for four weeks after being admitted into a rehab centre in Weston-super-Mare (thanks to Reset in Tower Hamlets) who sent me straight to hospital as I was yellow and weak.

Whilst there I had numerous tests including a Fibroscan, ultrasounds, an endoscopy, MRI scans, blood tests everyday, blood transfusions and also had to be fed through a feeding tube as I just could not gain my appetite. I also developed ascites. Eventually my liver started to bleed and I was rushed to intensive care in Bristol. My family were all in London and the doctor called my mum to come as soon as she could as I only had a 30 per cent chance of surviving. They all got the first train down. The embolization procedure was successful after five hours and from there I was on the road to recovery.

I am now over six months sober and can not express how important it is to ask for help and not be ashamed of it. Six months ago I was told I would need a liver transplant but I have turned my life around and my blood results are practically normal so I will now be having an MRI, a fibroscan and more blood tests to find out if I will still need to have one.

I’ve had to change a lot (for the better). I’m studying so I can go back to working in finance, the job I used to love, my daughter is back home living with me and doing so well in college, and my relationships with my friends and family are strong once again.

I do anything I can to protect and help my liver to repair the parts that can be saved. No alcohol, a low salt diet and exercise and taking it day by day. I urge anyone who thinks they may be drinking too much to get a blood test and listen to your doctor about the results. Don’t ignore it because I never thought I would end up in the situation I am in now and it really can happen to anyone.”

You can read more about Tammy’s story and journey on the British Liver Trust’s website.

Debbie went from being a social drinker to being dependent on alcohol. Like Tammy, it took a life-threatening stay in hospital to completely transform her life…

“I still remember when I had my first alcoholic drink. I was 16 years old and I had a half a cider when I was on holiday with my family on the Isle of Man. As an adult I always enjoyed a drink, but I never drank myself to oblivion – I was always a social drinker.

In 1981, my second child died of cot death at just ten weeks old. Back then there was no emotional support for parents in that situation. I was at home with my 18-month-old and my former husband was often away from home for work or at his rugby club. I was frequently alone and felt very isolated. I would drink most evenings. It was around that time that the cracks in my marriage started to show.

Twenty-five years later, my marriage finally broke down. I moved out and we divorced. It was a horrible time in my life. I became depressed and I drank alcohol to numb the pain, drinking earlier and earlier in the day.

In 2004, I remarried. My new husband made a conscious effort to help me with my drinking, but I knew it was really starting to affect me. At home, I was letting things like the housework slip, and I was also done for drink driving, which was a huge wake up call. Despite this, I could still function well enough to carry on with my voluntary work at our local church.

In 2016, I started getting the shakes and feeling bloated. I was admitted to hospital with swollen legs and I had a lot of fluid drained from my tummy. That was another big wake up call. I had counselling and joined Unity, a support group, but I was still too dependent on alcohol and went downhill very fast. I kept falling over and one day my husband came home to find me on the floor, unable to stand because my arms were too weak. That night I was very sick and we called an ambulance which took me to hospital in Carlisle.

The hospital doctors thought I wasn’t going to make it and my children were called to come and say goodbye. To everyone’s amazement I managed to pull through. I haven’t had a drink since.”

Read Debbie’s journey to a healthier and happier life after a transplant over on the British Liver Foundation’s website.

Both Tammy and Debbie’s story illustrates how we could easily lean on alcohol to help us during challenging times, and just how quickly it can send your health into a downward spiral. 90% of liver disease cases are preventable. Could you be at risk of liver disease? Take the British Liver Foundations Liver Screening test to find out.

How to love your liver

With prevention being key, what are some ways you can still enjoy a drink this Christmas, without damaging your liver? Here are a few tips from the British Liver Foundation:

  • Have drink-free days
  • Pace yourself: enjoy a non-alcoholic drink before you drink alcohol; while drinking, switch to low or no-alcohol alternatives.  
  • Know your triggers: is there a pattern to your drinking? Do you do so when you’re stressed, for example? By avoiding or mitigating the triggers, you’ll gain more control over how much you drink.
  • Understanding the benefits: studies show if you drink less alcohol, you’ll have better sleep, skin, overall health and consume fewer calories. Plus, you can enjoy Christmas without the hangovers!

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