We all know that alcohol consumption is the norm on many college campuses. In fact, 20% of college students report binge drinking behavior on a weekly basis [1]. Because alcohol use is so prevalent in this culture in which we currently reside, one must wonder what kind of real effects the substance has on students. I’m not talking about all those doomsday statistics (we all remember those computer programs we had to take and pass before coming to school) designed to scare students out of drinking, but the real health effects of drinking like a normal college student does.

While the health effects of alcohol are far-reaching, spanning from brain function to digestive implications to heart health, I will be focusing on the liver as the topic of today’s blog. The liver has a massive range of function in the human body including protein synthesis, bile production, and of particular interest to us, the breakdown of toxins, including alcohol.

Liver disease can occur when an unhealthy level of toxin leads to buildup of fat deposits. The process by which this occurs is known as steatosis, meaning that large deposits of triglycerides build up within hepatic cells [3]. This causes a condition known as fatty liver. Fatty liver can progress to liver fibrosis, characterized by scarring, and then to cirrhosis, which is an irreversible condition characterized by heavy scarring and significantly decreased liver function. The first figure illustrates this process. Fortunately for most college students, it takes 8-10 years of quite heavy drinking for the liver to progress to the cirrhosis stage. In some cases, however, heavy alcohol consumption may lead to more required years in college, which could really turn out to be just a vicious cycle! And even during our four years, we do incur some damage.

As a concession to those who do suffer from liver disease, alcohol use is by no means the only mechanism by which damage can occur. The flow chart provided indicates the likely causes of liver disease, including fatty liver, based upon behaviors and habits of the patient.

It is also no secret that college students are notorious for eating poorly. Nothing is more stereotypically college than late night pizza, fast food, and for us DePauw students, Marvins! A study examined the effects of a high fat diet, like the diets of many college students, on hepatic triglyceride levels in male rats with alcohol-induced fatty liver [2]. In other words, it looked at the effects of high fat diets in conjunction with alcohol use on the overall fat levels in the liver. Note the graph provided below. In general, the higher the fat content, the more fatty buildup will be present in the liver, often exacerbating the effects of fatty liver as a result of alcohol. At least this is the case in lab rats.

Assuming this translates into humans, which it very likely does, this makes college kind of the perfect storm to damage one’s liver. Binge drinking coupled with a high fat diet can be pretty detrimental to the liver.

Luckily, there is hope for us yet. As mentioned earlier, it can take many years of abuse to establish an irreversible condition in the liver, characterized by intense scarring. Fatty liver, the milder precursor to more serious conditions, is reversible with proper diet and reduced consumption of toxins.

[1] http://www.learn-about-alcoholism.com/binge-drinking-statistics.html

[2] Lieber, Charles S., M.D., and Leonore M. DeCarli, B.A., Quantitative Relationship between Amount of Dietary Fat and Severity of Alcoholic Fatty Liver. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 1970, 474-478.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatty_liver