Understanding liver enzymes
Liver enzymes are proteins that are produced by the liver and help in different chemical reactions in the body. They are responsible for breaking down food, processing medications, and filtering harmful toxins from the blood. Some of the most commonly measured liver enzymes in the blood include:
- AST (aspartate aminotransferase)
- ALT (alanine aminotransferase)
- ALP (alkaline phosphatase)
- GGT (gamma-glutamyl transferase)
The levels of these enzymes in the blood can be used to determine the health status of the liver.
What does it mean to have elevated liver enzymes?
Elevated liver enzymes refer to the condition where one or more of the liver enzymes are higher than normal levels in the blood. This condition is often an indication of liver damage or inflammation. A mild elevation in liver enzymes is usually not a cause for concern and can be due to different factors such as:
- Consuming certain medications such as statins or aspirin
- Alcohol use
- Fatty liver disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- Hepatitis A or B
- Celiac disease
- Autoimmune hepatitis
However, in some cases, significantly elevated liver enzyme levels can be a sign of serious liver problems such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, or viral hepatitis.
Can drinking alcohol cause elevated liver enzymes?
Yes, drinking alcohol can cause elevated liver enzymes. Alcohol is broken down in the liver, and over time, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to damage and inflammation of the liver. This can cause liver enzymes such as ALT and AST to leak into the bloodstream, resulting in an elevation of these enzymes levels.
The amount of alcohol needed to cause elevated liver enzymes varies from person to person and depends on various factors such as age, gender, weight, and overall health. Those who consume large amounts of alcohol regularly are more likely to experience elevated liver enzymes and other liver-related problems.
How long does it take for alcohol to affect liver enzymes?
Alcohol consumption can cause an immediate increase in liver enzyme levels, and the levels usually peak within 24 to 48 hours of consumption. However, mild elevations in enzymes levels due to alcohol consumption can return to normal levels within a week of alcohol cessation. However, for those who consume large amounts of alcohol regularly, this may take longer, and liver damage may be permanent in some cases.
How much alcohol consumption is safe?
While moderate alcohol consumption may not cause significant damage to the liver, approximately one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to liver health. According to the American Liver Foundation, consuming more than three to four drinks per day for women and five to six drinks per day for men can cause liver damage and increase the risk of developing liver disease. Binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks in less than two hours for men and four or more drinks in less than two hours for women, can also cause significant liver damage.
How to lower elevated liver enzymes?
The best way to lower elevated liver enzymes is by reducing or eliminating the cause of liver damage. In the case of alcohol-induced elevated enzymes, quitting or reducing alcohol consumption is the most effective way to prevent further liver damage and improve liver function.
Other ways of reducing elevated liver enzymes levels include:
- Losing weight if overweight or obese
- Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine
- Treating underlying health conditions such as hepatitis or fatty liver disease
- Avoiding unnecessary medications or stopping them under medical supervision
- Getting vaccinated against viral hepatitis A and B
Can elevated liver enzyme levels be reversed?
Mild elevations in liver enzymes can be reversed with lifestyle changes and treatment of underlying medical conditions. However, severe liver damage due to alcohol consumption may be irreversible and may require medical intervention such as liver transplantation.
The bottom line
While moderate alcohol consumption may not cause significant harm to the liver, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to elevated liver enzyme levels, indicating liver damage or inflammation. Those with elevated liver enzymes should consult their doctor for further evaluation and management of underlying medical conditions. Quitting or reducing alcohol consumption is the best way to prevent further liver damage and improve liver function. Incorporating a healthy lifestyle may also help in reducing liver enzyme levels.
Common Questions and Answers
- Q. What are the symptoms of elevated liver enzymes?
- A. Elevated liver enzymes usually do not cause any symptoms. However, if the levels are significantly high, it can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, jaundice, fatigue, and swelling in the legs and abdomen.
- Q. How are elevated liver enzymes diagnosed?
- A. Elevated liver enzymes are usually detected through a blood test called a liver function test. In some cases, imaging tests such as an ultrasound or CT scan may be required.
- Q. Can diet affect liver enzyme levels?
- A. Yes, a healthy diet can help in reducing liver enzyme levels. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins such as fish can improve liver function and reduce inflammation.
- Q. How often should liver enzyme levels be monitored?
- A. The frequency of monitoring liver enzyme levels depends on the underlying medical condition causing elevated liver enzymes or other liver-related problems. It is best to consult with a doctor about the frequency of monitoring.
- Q. Is caffeine consumption harmful to liver health?
- A. No, drinking moderate amounts of caffeine such as from coffee or tea is not harmful to the liver and may actually have some benefits for liver health.
- American Liver Foundation. (2021). Alcohol-related liver disease. https://liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diseases-of-the-liver/alcohol-related-liver-disease/
- Mayo Clinic. (2021). Elevated Liver Enzymes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/elevated-liver-enzymes/symptoms-causes/syc-20372167
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Drinking Levels Defined. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/drinking-levels-defined
- World Health Organization. (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241565639