How alcohol impacts organs

My youngest cousin, age 50, is the daughter I never had. Now she is dying of liver disease. Laura was here for a visit a few months ago, along with her two brothers and her father — my brother, Douglas.

It was a delightful family visit, although Laura spent considerable time resting in our basement bedroom, missing out on the guffaws and accompanying banter, along with accounts of our recollections of past happier years when we all lived in Washington.

Laura was the youngest of Doug’s offspring – a little child in glasses. She grew up to be a lovely girl with a sharp intellect, but a love for the wild lifestyle, a party girl for many years.

I hadn’t seen Laura for about 12 years. That was when she lived with her parents, who then had a house in rural New Hampshire. I spent the night at her small apartment where we attempted to drink all the vodka in New Hampshire. She didn’t realize the damage it was causing.

Excessive alcohol consumption can have profound negative effects on the kidneys and their function in maintaining the body’s fluid, electrolyte, and acid-base balance, according to the Betty Ford Center. This leaves alcoholics vulnerable to many kidney-related health problems affected by drinking.

Alcohol metabolism is controlled by genetic factors, such as variations in the enzymes that break down the alcohol as well as environmental factors, and the amount of alcohol a person consumes. Laura was an alcohol victim, but didn’t realize it until too late.

Differences in alcohol metabolism may put some people at greater risk for alcohol problems, whereas others may be at least somewhat protected from alcohol’s harmful effects.

Binge drinking (usually more than four to five drinks within two hours) can raise a person’s blood alcohol to dangerous levels. This can cause a sudden drop in kidney function known as “acute kidney injury.” When this happens, dialysis is needed until a person’s kidney function returns to normal. Acute kidney injury usually goes away in time, but in some cases, it can lead to lasting kidney damage.

When Laura, her brothers, and father visited us here in Michigan this past spring, she was thin as a string. I didn’t know what her condition was then. It was only lately that she wrote me about the seriousness of her condition.

The National Kidney Foundation informs that there are two kidneys. Each is about the size of your fist, and is located on either side of the spine at the lowest level of the rib cage.

“Each kidney contains up to a million functioning units called nephrons. A nephron consists of a filtering unit of tiny blood vessels called a glomerulus attached to a tubule. When blood enters the glomerulus, it is filtered and the remaining fluid then passes along the tubule. In the tubule, chemicals and water are either added to or removed from this filtered fluid according to the body’s needs, the final product being the urine we excrete.”

Your kidneys filter harmful substances from your blood, explains the Kidney Foundation. One of these substances is alcohol. Alcohol can cause changes in the function of the kidneys and make them less able to filter your blood. In addition to filtering blood, your kidneys do other important jobs. One is keeping the right amount of water in your body. Alcohol affects the ability of your kidneys to do this. When alcohol dehydrates (dries out) the body, the drying effect can affect the normal function of the kidneys.

Too much alcohol can also affect your blood pressure. People who drink too much are more likely to have high blood pressure, as many seniors know. And medications for high blood pressure can be affected by alcohol. More than two drinks a day can increase your chance of having high blood pressure.

Chronic drinking can also cause liver disease. This adds to the kidney’s job. The rate of blood flow to your kidneys is usually kept at a certain level, so your kidneys can filter your blood properly. Liver disease impairs this important balancing act. In fact, most patients in this country who have both liver disease and associated kidney dysfunction are alcohol dependent.

Laura writes me: “I keep well by eating well, walking, and resting a lot. I might be able to put surgery off for another two years. I’ve been giving talks on liver disease and sobriety.

“Lots of love and please write,” she said.

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