Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Liver Failure 101, or How That One Family Member Will Actually Die

Why do alcoholics bleed to death? 

In order to explain this, I'm gonna have to get a little pathophysiological, as I promised in an earlier post.

Most chronic alcoholics die shitting or vomiting blood. It seems like a weird connection, especially if (like most people in a non-medical arena) you're not totally clear on what the liver does exactly. Something to do with poisons, right?

Well, yeah, but not just poison. A lot of things come into your body through your mouth, and you can feel free to insert your own dick jokes here, in much the same way that you insert dicks into your mouth. That shit ranges from "inadvisable and kind of sweaty-tasting" to "straight-up block of pesticides" and your stomach and intestines give no shits about this. If you swallow a mouthful of jizz, as far as your stomach is concerned, you just had a teaspoon or two of protein supplement, and your pancreas will happily bathe it in flesh-dissolving enzymes so your intestinal bacteria can chew it up and shit it all over the absorptive walls of your intestines. Directly outside of those gut walls, blood vessels happily pump away the acid-bathed, pancreas-liquefied, bacteria-digested jizz protein for your body to make into more of itself.

Hold the fucking phone, you say. That jizz was probably nontoxic, but what about the other nasty things we eat every day without realizing it? The 2.5 spiders you swallow in your sleep every night-- where does their venom go? That waxy shit on the outside of cucumbers that tastes like Raid? The shampoo you got in your mouth last time you showered? (I know I'm not the only person who has this problem.)

And worse, even if you assume that the intestinal walls have some pretty strong filtration powers to separate the shit from the food, what happens when you get horrific diarrhea and your insides get raw? What if you eat too much corn and you scrape up your gut? What if you have hemorrhoids and your body is constantly insisting that you have to squeeze fist-sized turds directly over the open wound that your asshole has become? Oh my god, you are going to have shit blood poisoning and die.

So here's the trick: your body has two separate blood-circulating systems. One of them is systemic, and full of delicious clean blood with lots of carefully sterilized proteins and freely-available sugars floating happily through it, ready to feed your heart and brain and other assorted bits without subjecting them to anything gross at all. The other is intestinal, and it's a fucking junkyard of sloppy proteins that still look a little like the sperm you chugged to begin with, plus all the other poisonous chemicals you've splashed in your mouth recently, plus all the perfectly natural nitrogen waste that comes with living and is incredibly disruptive to brain activity, plus any traces of shit that are scraping their way into your bulging assgrapes. Fortunately, this complete wasteland of trash is outfitted with a couple of critical defenses.

First, you have tons of lymphatic drainage in your intestines. I'll cover the lymph system later sometime, but it's like an alternate circulatory system, a set of loose-mouthed leaky veins that pick up extra water and trash and scour it with macrophages that live in the nodes. 

Second, the intestinal system is on a closed circuit that only returns to the rest of the body through, you guessed it, the liver. Inside the liver, the jizz proteins are reduced and converted to more usable proteins; chemicals are scrubbed and pumped back into the shit chute for dumping. The hepatic portal (literally the "liver door") refers to the tiny straw-like filters through which all your blood has to squeeze on its way in and out of the intestinal circuit. All of your blood goes through here, and the pressure gets pretty high.

Alcohol and other liver toxins scar up these tubes and make them stiff and tight, forcing your blood to squeeze through smaller and smaller spaces. Healthy liver tubes are flexible and have a little bit of give; scarred tubes are about as flexible as particleboard. Cirrhosis-- liver scarring-- results in portal hypertension, or excessive pressure on either side of the liver-door. On the systemic side of the door, backed-up blood bloats into hemorrhoids in the esophagus, which eventually burst and bleed, often catastrophically. On the intestinal side, so much blood builds up that the extra fluid is forced to ooze out into the abdominal cavity, forming that stretched-out, water-filled liver-failure belly you see in liver pts and chronic alcoholics. This is in addition to similar ready-to-pop situations in your intestines, which can blow out at any time.

Adding insult to injury, the liver takes all these proteins and food particles and makes all your blood clotting factors out of them. A failing liver, or one continually taxed by alcohol or tylenol/paracetamol, is too busy struggling to filter and repair to be effective at making clotting factors. And, being in a prime position to monitor your nutrition status, your liver has control of your body's access to its food stores-- control that's mediated largely through proteins. 

The thing about proteins is that they're basically specialized wrenches, low-tech thing-grabbers designed to grab the thing they're made to grab and move it however it needs to be moved. They CAN be broken down for energy, but they're terrible energy sources, and the more protein your body has, the more wrenches it can build. And what builds your wrenches? Yeah, it's totally your liver.

And while you probably know about platelets, and with a little brain-poking you can probably figure out that those are blood cells and come from inside your bones, you should also know that platelets don't do much more than grab broken areas and then group-hug. They really aren't a fix for a torn blood vessel. Fortunately, once they're group-hugging your wound, they can secrete chemicals that activate the wrenches around them-- things like fibrin, which helps you heal and build scar tissue, and which forms the bulk of a dry scab.

Platelets by themselves don't last all that long and can't make a decent scab. But if they have the tools, they can build huge structures to protect your blood from wandering off. And what are these hammers and wrenches?


And what makes your proteins?

Yeah, you get the idea.

So if you start bleeding and your liver is shot to shit, good luck. Your body is going to forget how to clot very quickly. And that is why alcoholics die bleeding from the throat.


  1. You have a real talent for explaining pathophysiology.
    If you wrote a book about it, I'd buy it. I'd even read it.

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