Heavy drinking for months, not years, causing deadly liver failure

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Doctors in Michigan and nationwide report patients coming in with liver failure after drinking very heavily for less than a year or — in rare cases — just weeks.

“The common rule that you could drink heavily for many, many years and then slowly develop cirrhosis, it’s still true. But we’re seeing that the timeframe has been compressed,” said Dr. Elliot Tapper of the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Tapper said while it’s still more common to develop alcohol-related liver failure after years of heavy drinking, patients are being diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis after drinking excessively for months or weeks.

Heavy drinking is generally considered to be eight or more drinks weekly for women, and 15 or more drinks weekly for men.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two or less drinks daily for men and one or less drinks for women.

Patients who’ve developed acute alcoholic hepatitis over short periods are more likely to have consumed eight or more drinks daily.

“This is occurring more frequently, especially in women and in younger people,” said Dr. Vijay Shah with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

“(These are) patients who are drinking in excess over a period of just weeks to months,” Shah said.

Tapper pointed to several potential causes, like binge drinking being more extreme than ever in terms of the amount consumed, an increase over time in alcohol concentration per drink and the rise in comorbidities like obesity and diabetes.

“It happens enough that you will meet people in the hospital who began drinking maybe a year or two ago very heavily and now have liver failure from it,” Tapper explained.

Overall, hospitals report a significant increase in admissions for alcohol-induced liver disease since COVID-19 hit.

Early evaluation of data at the University of Michigan Medical Center post-COVID-19 shows admissions for such cases have increased 30 to 50 percent.

“I ONLY DRANK CHARDONNAY”

If you’d met Heather Reece in her drinking days, you probably would not have known she had a problem.

Heather Reece and her son. (Courtesy)

“You would miss it if you had known me back then,” Reece told News 8 during an interview at one of two Orange Theory Fitness Studios she co-owns with her wife in Kalamazoo County. “It wasn’t anything dramatic. My kids were at school on time. They were at doctors appointments on time. They were in activities.”

But what had started as a couple glasses of Chardonnay at dinner had turned into bottles of it a day, a level of consumption she maintained for a couple years prior to her diagnosis.

“Near the end, two, maybe three, bottles of wine (a day). Could have been more. I wasn’t really keeping track toward the end,” Reece noted of the progressive nature of the disease of alcoholism.

“I only drank Chardonnay. I think that’s an important message to get out there,” Reece added.

The “end” of Reece’s illness came in fall 2014 after a friend convinced her to go to hospital.

“I think if you asked people around me, I think it would be about two months prior they were seeing my stomach distended, skin coloring was changing, I was having headaches,” Reece said.

Heather Reece shows her liver transplant scar. (Courtesy)

Reece’s wife and parents fought to find a liver transplant center willing to take the then-44-year-old, despite her active alcoholism.

Oschner Medical Center performed a liver transplant on Reece in October 2014, and she’s been sober ever since.

“I am six years, five months, ten days sober. I am the co-owner of two Orange Theory Fitness Studios in Kalamazoo County and still raising six kids, and just trying to bring as much grace, gratitude and kindness to the world as I can,” Reece said.

Heather Reece and her wife as Reece recovered from a liver transplant. (Courtesy)

“I say to people, ‘you need to get to the place where drinking is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.’ You just wouldn’t do it. You just have to get that mindset, and that’s what it is for me. I’ve been able to say, ‘it’s simply not an option.’”

Reece is hoping her story will prompt people to seek help or even request blood work at their next doctor’s appointment.

High levels of liver enzymes can indicate alcohol-induced liver disease.

Reece avoided blood tests for years prior to her diagnosis.

She believes it was the disease of alcoholism — which has been shown to effectively hijack brain circuitry — that enabled her years of denial.

If you’re seeking help for a substance abuse disorder, call the national helpline at 1.800.662.HELP.

You can also find treatment centers and other resources on the Substance Abuse and Mental House Service Administration’s website.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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