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Understanding Cirrhosis of the Liver

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What Is Cirrhosis of the Liver? continued...

The liver is remarkably tolerant of disease and injury. Even after 70% of its mass has been destroyed or removed, the organ can still function, albeit with decreased effectiveness. If the conditions that caused the destruction have been removed or corrected, the liver usually can bounce back.

Although function can never be restored to parts of your liver that have turned to scar tissue, you can live a healthy life with the remaining portion if the disease is caught in time. However, there is a point of no return with cirrhosis. As more cells are replaced by scar tissue, fewer healthy cells are left to handle the liver's many tasks. Eventually, function problems arise and may remain. This is why it's important to identify the underlying causes as soon as possible and begin taking steps to eliminate them.

What Causes Cirrhosis of the Liver?

Cirrhosis occurs as the result of long-term injury to the liver. Possible causes include viruses, genetic deficiencies, prolonged obstruction of bile flow, and long periods of exposure to drugs and other toxic substances. In the majority of cases, however, the culprit is excessive consumption of alcohol.

The link between alcohol and cirrhosis is well documented. Studies show that while moderate drinking may actually help prevent strokes and heart disease, heavy drinking has a clearly harmful effect on the liver. For example, the French -- famous for their wine consumption -- have a relatively low incidence of heart disease, but the rate of cirrhosis in France is very high. Many doctors believe that more drinkers die from cirrhosis than are protected from heart disease.

Simply put, the more alcohol you drink -- and the greater the frequency of drinks -- the more likely you are to develop cirrhosis. Because the bodies of men and women process alcohol differently, the amount that you can safely imbibe depends largely on your sex. Women are more susceptible to alcohol-induced liver damage than men.

It's important to note that alcohol tolerance may vary from one person to the next. For some people, one drink per day is enough to leave permanent scars in the liver. If you drink, especially if you do so heavily and often, have a doctor examine you for signs of cirrhosis. This is necessary even if you feel healthy, since the symptoms of cirrhosis often do not appear until it is too late to stop the disease or slow its progress.

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