The liver - the body's great refinery
By: James Roger, MD
Most of us are aware of some of the more common functions of the liver. It produces bile, which helps break down fats. It metabolizes alcohol. It stores iron and aids in blood clotting. But these are only the beginning of the many important jobs that the liver performs every day. This complex organ performs many functions that are essential to life.
The liver is a large organ – second only in size to your skin – weighing about three pounds, and in adult encompassing roughly the size of a football. It rests on the right side of the abdomen, behind the ribs, to the right of the stomach and below the lungs.
Basically, the liver acts like a filter. It takes substances and converts them into materials that the body can use or that the body can dispose of. Just about everything that enters our body – food, medication, alcohol and chemicals absorbed through the skin – passes through the liver. The blood from your stomach and intestines filters through the liver before it flows to other parts of the body. While the liver performs many functions each day to keep the body healthy, these can be divided into four main categories.
The liver aids in digestion. By producing bile, it helps the body absorb fat and vitamins A, D, E and K. As a part of this function, the liver also works to regulate the production and excretion of cholesterol.
The liver distributes nutrients from food we eat. The liver stores iron. It also makes and stores glycogen, a sugar, which can be released into the blood when the body needs quick energy.
The liver removes toxins and bacteria from the blood. It filters chemical substances – such as medications – and other waste products from the blood. This includes metabolizing alcohol.
The liver aids in blood clotting, which helps the body heal after injury.
The liver is one of the few organs in the body that can regenerate. That is, if a portion is cut off or damaged, the liver can grow new cells to replace what was lost.
That doesn’t mean that the liver cannot become diseased or damaged. Because of its many important functions, a damaged liver can have serious effects on the body. Certain symptoms indicate the liver is not working adequately. These include:
• Jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and eyes
• Increased tendency to bruise or bleed
• Darkened urine
• Stools that are pale, gray or tar-like in color
• Spider angiomas (abnormal blood vessels) under the skin
• Itching or skin rash
• Abdominal pain or discomfort with possible buildup of fluid in the abdomen
• Nausea, vomiting (including vomiting blood), diarrhea and/or loss of appetite
• Muscle weakness, numbness or problems with the autonomic nerves (collectively known as peripheral neuropathy)
The most common diseases affecting the liver are hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver and cancer. The best way to avoid liver disease is keep your liver healthy thought healthy diet and lifestyle habits.
Drink lots of water and limit alcohol and caffeine intake. Water is a natural detoxifier that aids in flushing toxins from your body. Eat antioxidant-rich foods that help your body detoxify damaging chemicals. Some good choices include spinach, blueberries, broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage. Limit salt and sugar intake. These can become liver-damaging toxins if consumed in excess.
Exercise. The sweat produced during exercise removes toxins from the body. It also introduces fresh oxygen into your bloodstream. Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity may increase your risk of fatty liver disease.
Stay away from environments that could introduce toxins into your body. Be careful using chemicals and aerosol sprays. Avoid secondhand smoke.
See your doctor regularly. Ask about a test to measure hepatic (liver) function to identify potential problems before they become serious issues.
Your liver – chances are you don’t often think about the many important functions this vital organ performs on a daily basis. From forming a clot on a cut on your finger to filtering toxins from your blood, the liver is responsible for keeping your body performing in peak condition. By establishing healthy diet and lifestyle habits you can keep your liver (and you) working well for years to come.
Dr. Rogers is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.