Your liver is an amazing organ that performs dozens of different bodily functions essential for life. The liver is the fourth-largest organ of the body. On average, the skin weighs 20 pounds, the intestines weigh eight pounds, and the lungs weigh five pounds; the liver weighs about 3½ pounds and is the size of a medium football.
The liver would be rubbery to the touch (if one ever touched it!). The liver is easy not to think about because it is inside the body and we never see it.
Your liver is located on your right side, below your ribs and above your abdomen. It is a red-brown organ with two lobes. In reality, it is involved with almost every function essential to life.
It stores energy, makes critical proteins for our blood, has immune system functions, and works hand-in-hand with the intestines, gall bladder and pancreas as part of our digestive system. The primary role of the liver is to filter blood coming from the intestines after absorbing food, and to capture and break down toxins, including medications and alcohol that we ingest.
Considering all the jobs the liver has, it is easy to understand why we can become so profoundly ill if the liver stops functioning properly.
The liver is an amazing blood filter and storage organ
As a filter for blood coming from the intestines, the liver can hold up to 10 percent of the total blood in the body when it is full. In fact, the liver can filter up to 90 liters of blood per hour.
The liver can regrow itself
The liver is the only organ that can regenerate itself. In fact, you can lose up to 75 percent of your liver, and it will regenerate itself and do so in robust fashion. It can reproduce itself back to normal size in as little as 15 days.
This super-growth fact is wonderful if one needs to donate a portion of a liver for a transplant. Doctors and researchers believe the liver has this unique and amazing regenerative property because of its vital role in the overall health of a person.
The brain depends on the liver
The liver is essential for a healthy brain. The liver controls the levels of both sugar and ammonia in the blood. A poorly functioning liver causes profound changes in brain health termed hepatic (liver) encephalopathy. A sick liver produces a sick brain.
The liver needs to be checked on
Liver problems are difficult to detect, especially early on. That is why it is important to engage in regular medical check-ups to maximize your best health. Your doctor will recommend the best medical check-up schedule for you.
The liver plays a vital role in digestion
The liver produces bile. Bile is a green fluid that is secreted into the intestines to help break down and absorb fat in food. Bile also contains toxic chemicals removed by the liver that get deposited into the intestines and eventually get released as stool.
Bile gives stool its characteristic brown color. If stool is not brown, it means the liver is not functioning properly and signals serious liver problems. Most people become familiar with bitter green bile when they are sick or they have ingested too much alcohol and are forced to visit the toilet on their knees.
The ability to absorb fat from food is essential for life. The liver can produce up to a liter of bile per day.
The liver can be damaged
Damage to the liver is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is a serious condition that develops over many years, causing the liver to have extensive and irreversible scarring. With the liver fibrotic and scarred, it can’t function properly. The blood flow is restricted or even blocked, and without treatment the liver can completely fail.
There are many causes of liver cirrhosis, but the three most common causes are long-term alcohol consumption or abuse, viral infections (hepatitis), and fatty liver disease. In fatty liver disease, the liver becomes infiltrated and choked off by excessive fat deposits.
The causes of fatty liver disease are poorly understood, but most experts agree that being overweight, having chronic elevated lipids and cholesterol, diabetes and elevated blood sugar, sleep apnea, and poor thyroid function can all play a role in developing fatty liver disease.
Common signs of cirrhosis include yellowing of the skin, eyes and tongue (jaundice), breast development in men, enlarged abdomen, abdominal pain, red palms, severe intractable itching, and fatigue.
The liver protects the kidneys
We produce new blood all the time the old blood is broken down, and one of the products is something called bilirubin. Bilirubin is extremely toxic and can damage the kidneys. The liver processes the bilirubin to a form that is not damaging to the kidneys. This liver-processed bilirubin gives urine its characteristic yellow color.
The liver is a master storehouse
The liver stores energy (sugar or glucose as glycogen), iron, minerals and vitamins for body use.
The liver is a master factory
The liver also produces special proteins necessary for blood clotting. It also produces cholesterol, needed to make cell walls and essential hormones.
The liver makes medicines work
Most of the medicines we take need to be processed and activated by the liver in order to work properly.
Your liver is a miraculous organ. The importance of the liver is illustrated by the fact that all vertebrate animals (animals that have a spinal cord) have a liver, and every liver is similar in structure and function.
The liver is responsible for multiple essential functions, including the detoxification of harmful substances, purification of the blood, and the production of life-sustaining nutrients. In fact, the liver performs over 500 different functions and is a key for good health and life.
To keep your liver healthy, minimize alcohol intake and make sure to maintain a regular medical check-up schedule with your doctor.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.