Alcohol and other drugs
There are several ways alcohol can affect a person living with hepatitis. Researchers have found a relationship between alcohol consumption and hepatitis C viral load. The viral load seems to rise in proportion to alcohol consumption, suggesting that alcohol has some effect on hepatitis C replication.
Treatment can also be affected by alcohol. The rates of sustained viral response to treatment in people who drink alcohol have been shown to decrease, compared to people who do not drink. Sustained viral response is when a person’s viral load is consistently undetectable in blood tests. The efficiency of interferon is also thought to be decreased, although further research is needed to determine the exact reasons. Additionally, some treatment side effects can be significantly greater with alcohol consumption. Depression, a common side effect of interferon treatment, is also associated with heavy drinking. It is important to remember that the effects of many prescription or non-prescription drugs can also be altered by excessive drinking.
Toxicity from the process of metabolising alcohol can also be a cause for concern for people living with hepatitis. As alcohol is broken down by the liver, bi-products are produced, some of which are more toxic to the body than the alcohol itself. The liver becomes inflamed as damage occurs from this toxicity. After prolonged inflammation, molecules called “free radicals” are over-produced, potentially destroying health liver tissue and subsequently impairing liver function. Antioxidants are the body’s way of dealing with free radicals; however production of this protective mechanism is also slowed by the consumption of alcohol.
Rates of fibrosis, development of cirrhosis and incidences of liver cancer have been shown to be significantly higher in people living with hepatitis and who consume more than the recommended safe amount of alcohol. For this reason, it is strongly recommended that alcohol is not consumed by people living with hepatitis. At a maximum, no more than seven standard drinks per week should be consumed, and these should also be spread evenly throughout the week to prevent binge drinking.
Malnutrition is another risk for people who drink more than the recommended amount. Alcohol is very high in calories, which is why many people do not feel very hungry after a few drinks. Calories in alcohol are “empty”; that is they are without protein, vitamins or minerals. The empty calories displace other nutrients in the diet, leading to deficiencies in important nutrients. Some research has found that a diet lacking in adequate nutrition can lead to liver diseases such as fatty liver.
The negative impact of smoking on the body has been proven time and time again; however for people living with hepatitis, its impact could be even greater. Cigarettes contain over four thousand different chemical compounds which are absorbed into the blood stream through the lung walls. One of the liver’s most important jobs is to filter out toxins from the blood, effectively cleaning it so optimal nutrients and oxygen can be delivered to the whole body. If the blood cannot be adequately cleansed, toxins can damage other organs, including the brain.
There is some evidence to suggest that smoking can speed up the progression of hepatitis C, leading to cirrhosis earlier than otherwise expected. Dry mouth and gum conditions experienced by many people living with the virus can be worsened with smoking. Higher rates of certain cancers have also been noted in people living with hepatitis C who smoke.
Almost all recreational drugs are processed by the liver. Even though some are more toxic than others, all of them will stress the liver to some degree. Certain drugs in pure form such as heroin and morphine are not particularly toxic in themselves, however impurities used to cut the drug can be harmful. These extra substances can be anything from talc to baking flour or even other drugs. In general, injecting drugs is more dangerous than oral or nasal ingestion as this method bypasses the filtering system of the stomach.
Amphetamines (or speed) have been known to damage the liver. Cocaine and ecstasy can also cause liver toxicity and eventual liver failure. Hallucinogenic mushrooms should be taken with caution, especially by someone who is living with hepatitis, as they contain an array of chemicals not easily tolerated by the liver.
The use of anabolic-androgenic steroids can also have a negative impact on the liver. Abuse of steroids has been linked to jaundice, liver tumours and liver cancer. In addition, if injecting is the route of administration, users must ensure clean equipment is used in order to reduce the risk of contracting other blood-borne viruses such as HIV, hepatitis B or another genotype of hepatitis C.
Inhalants can cause severe damage to most body organs, including the liver due to their highly toxic nature. Highly concentrated inhalants can cause oxygen displacement in the lungs and central nervous system. This not only impedes proper functioning of body organs due to the blood oxygen depletion, but can also lead to death by asphyxiation.
The impact of marijuana use on the liver is still being investigated, although the tar in marijuana contains similar carcinogens to those found in tobacco cigarettes. It is therefore likely to have similar toxic effects and has been associated with increased risk of head and neck cancer. On the other hand, patient testimony suggests marijuana many assist in alleviating some of the many side effects associated with typical combination therapy for hepatitis C. For this reason, treatment outcomes have been reported to be improved in people using small amounts of marijuana, compared to those who are not, possibly due to improved adherence to the regime. Research is continuing in this area.
Page last updated: Wednesday 15 September, 2010