The liver plays an extremely important role in the body. It ensures the removal of toxins and other functions to ensure that whatever we consume is properly eliminated from the body. As you can imagine, the liver also plays a significant role in metabolizing drugs. But when someone abuses drugs like heroin constantly, it can inhibit liver function over time. Today we’re looking into heroin and liver damage to better understand how this particular drug impacts one of the most vital organs in the human body.
Functions of the Liver
In addition to eliminating toxins from the body, the liver also has other functions like:
- Producing circulating proteins that help blood clot normally, allowing wounds to heal.
- Breaking down old blood cells.
- Processing the hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells to recycle iron.
- Storing minerals (like iron) and vitamins to release when necessary.
- Removing bacteria and other foreign substances from the bloodstream.
- Eliminating excess bilirubin, a component released from damaged red blood cells at the end of their lifecycle, which can be harmful to the body.
- Processing dietary and stored fats into energy.
- Producing bile acids that are secreted into the digestive tract to break down and facilitate the absorption of fats from foods in the intestines.
- Synthesizing cholesterol to aid in fat transport
- Regulating blood sugar by using stored glycogen when glucose levels are low and removing it from the bloodstream when glucose levels are high.
- Breaking down proteins and converting amino acids into usable
- Modifying ammonia into a chemical called urea, which travels to the kidneys to be safely released in urine.1
Metabolism of Drugs in the Liver
When blood enters the liver, it carries nutrients as well as drugs and other toxins that the person may have consumed. The liver’s job is to detoxify these drugs (or remove the toxins that make them harmful) and remove the byproducts resulting from the process of metabolism.
The majority of drugs are fat-soluble, meaning that they’re difficult to eliminate via urine. Enzymes in the liver work to break down these substances and convert them into water-soluble forms so they can be passed in the urine.
Not everyone metabolizes drugs in the same way. For instance, older people may take longer to metabolize a drug than someone who’s younger and using the same substance. Some other factors that can affect drug metabolism in the liver include:
- Inherited enzyme structure
- Microorganisms in the gut
- Overall health
However, certain health conditions like kidney disease, shock, heart failure, and liver disease can impact the body’s ability to eliminate drugs and alcohol, as well. It’s also possible for long-term abuse of drugs like heroin to cause liver damage, inhibiting its function and leaving it unable to eliminate toxins from the body in the future.
Link Between Heroin and Liver Damage
Just to be clear, heroin is bad for your liver. It’s one of the most harmful drugs that cause liver damage.
Like other drugs of abuse, chronic heroin use forces the liver to detoxify the body at a rate higher and more strenuous than that of an average person. In doing this, you’re overworking the liver, producing long-term damage.
Drug-induced liver injury is an umbrella term that refers to liver damage caused by the consumption of substances like drugs, supplements, medicinal herbs, or plants that cause direct damage to the liver. For some, the symptoms of drug-induced liver damage may go unnoticed.
A common form of drug-induced liver damage is drug-induced hepatitis, which is the inflammation of the liver. This condition can be caused by a variety of drugs, including heroin.
Can Heroin Cause Cirrhosis?
Heroin can cause cirrhosis, as well, usually when hepatitis is left untreated. Cirrhosis is a late stage of scarring (fibrosis) of the liver that’s caused by other forms of liver disease, such as hepatitis. Each time the liver is damaged, it attempts to repair itself.
Over time of continuously doing this, the liver builds up scar tissue, similar to how the knee would develop scar tissue after surgery. As cirrhosis progresses and more scar tissue forms, the liver’s function is inhibited (decompensated cirrhosis) and eventually becomes life-threatening if not caught early enough or treated.
Additionally, heroin can affect the liver in other more indirect ways. Intravenous heroin use can lead to scarred or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses, and other soft-tissue infections.
Heroin also contains many cutting agents or additives that can clog the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidney, or brain. This can lead to infection or even cell death in vital organs, including the liver.
In the end, any damage to the liver can become life-threatening. When it comes to treating cirrhosis, this condition is usually only treatable but not curable.
Help for Heroin Addiction
In addition to heroin liver damage, this drug can also lead to addiction, increase one’s risk of contracting diseases like HIV and Hepatitis, and developing heart disease. Long-term heroin use or drug use of any kind can also deteriorate a person’s relationships, career, and finances.
If you or someone you know has developed a heroin addiction, do not wait to get heroin treatment. At our drug and alcohol rehab in Chicago, we offer that and more.
Our levels of care for substance abuse treatment utilize evidence-based practices and therapy programs to help patients recover not only their physical health but their mental well-being, as well. No matter how long you’ve been addicted to drugs or alcohol, recovery is possible.
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- NCBI - How does the liver work?