The Liver: One of the Most Important and Underappreciated Organs in the Human Body
The liver is one of the most important and underappreciated organs in the human body. Without a functioning liver, the body cannot survive. The liver is our largest internal organ, and it performs over 500 different tasks for the body. It is vital to the processes of digestion, detoxification, and immune health, and yet, it is also an organ that most people tend to know very little about. In this article, we are going to explore this amazing organ and the many important things that it does for your body and your health.
What Is the Liver?
The liver is a cone-shaped, dark reddish-brown organ that sits mostly in the upper right portion of the abdomen, underneath the ribs and below the diaphragm. It is about the size of a football, and on average, weighs around 3 pounds. It holds up to 13 percent of a person’s blood supply and plays an essential role in the digestive system. More impressive than the size of the liver, however, are the many incredible functions that the liver performs.
What Is the Liver’s Role in Digestion?
The process of converting food into nutrients is one of the body’s most important tasks, and the liver plays a key role in this. When we eat food, it enters in through our mouth, is broken down by our teeth and by enzyme-rich saliva, then enters into the esophagus once swallowed. The esophagus is a muscular tube connecting the throat with the stomach that is about 8 inches long. Once food travels through the esophagus into the stomach, it is further broken down by hydrochloric acid (HCL) and enzymes, as well as by contractions of the stomach muscles that churn the food. Then, the food exits the stomach and enters into the small intestine—and it is here where the liver begins its digestive role.
The small intestine consists of three parts. The first part, called the duodenum, connects to the stomach. The middle part is the jejunum. The third part, called the ileum, attaches to the colon. The liver secrets bile into the duodenum to help further break down digested food. Bile, also called gall, is a greenish yellow secretion that contains bile acids, which are critical for digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine. So, anytime you eat a food with fat in it, you can thank your liver for breaking it down and making it absorbable for the body.
It is in the jejunum, the middle part of the small intestine, where most of the nutrient absorption from digested food takes place. After food is absorbed, the liver plays another one of its most essential roles.
The Liver Filters Everything That We Ingest
Anything that is eaten or consumed, whether it’s food, alcohol, medicine or toxins, gets filtered by the liver. After food is digested and absorbed in the small intestine, it then gets absorbed into the blood and goes directly to the liver.
Once in the liver, the liver does an incredible task of sorting out the substances consumed, distinguishing between important nutrients and harmful toxins. The liver is like the body's chemical factory. It takes the raw materials absorbed by the intestine and makes all the various chemicals that the body needs to function. The liver also detoxifies potentially harmful chemicals, breaking down and neutralizing many substances that can be toxic to the body.
The intelligence of the liver knows when to detoxify, when to usher the toxins out of the body through urine or stool, when to store the nutrients and when to release them back into the blood. It is truly an impressive feat.
The Liver Stores Glycogen for Energy
Another liver function is when the it processes a meal, it removes sugar from the blood and stores it in the form of glycogen. When a person’s blood sugar decreases, it converts that stored glycogen to glucose, adding the proper amount of instant energy into the bloodstream for the cells to use. Once the glycogen store is used, the liver will create glucose from other carbohydrates and a form of protein.
The Liver Produces Protein
The liver produces most of the proteins found in blood. Albumin is a major protein made by the liver that plays an important role in regulating blood volume and distribution of fluids in the body. The liver also produces ferritin (a protein used to store iron in the body) as well as proteins that bind to hormones, lipoproteins involved in cholesterol transport, and acute phase proteins involved in inflammation and infection.
What Is the Liver’s Role in Detoxification?
Environmental toxins can be a huge threat to our health. Agricultural pesticides used to grow food, air pollution from industrial waste, toxic heavy metals in water or appliances, toxic chemicals in beauty, hygiene, and household cleaning products, and many other sources of toxins negatively impact our health on a daily basis. The liver is the key organ that processes these toxins and allows us to eliminate them from the body.
Inside the cells of the liver there are sophisticated mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years to break down toxic substances. Every drug, artificial chemical, pesticide and hormone, is broken down by enzyme pathways inside the liver cells. Toxic chemicals that enter the body are fat-soluble, which means they dissolve only in fatty or oily solutions & not in water, making them difficult for the body to excrete. In the fatty parts of the body, toxins may be stored for years, being released during times of exercise, stress or fasting.
The liver has a two-step process designed to convert fat-soluble chemicals into water soluble chemicals so that they may then be easily excreted from the body through watery fluids such as bile and urine. This process is usually referred to as phase I and phase II detoxification.
Phase I Detoxification Pathway
Without going into too much detail about the process of phase 1, which consists of “oxidation reduction and hydrolysis,” the phase 1 pathway essentially converts a toxic chemical into a less harmful chemical. This is achieved by various chemical reactions, and during this process free radicals are produced which, if excessive, can damage the liver cells. Antioxidants reduce the damage caused by these free radicals, and if they are lacking from the diet, and toxin exposure is high, toxic chemicals become far more dangerous to one’s health.
Excessive amounts of toxic chemicals such as pesticides can disrupt the enzyme system (known as the “P-450” system) responsible for converting toxic chemicals into less harmful chemicals by causing over activity, which results in high levels of damaging free radicals being produced. If these free radicals are not further broken down by the Phase II conjugation, they may cause damage to proteins, RNA, and DNA within the cell, which can be very dangerous.
Substances that may cause overactivity of the P- 450 enzymes
- Saturated fats
- Organophosphorus pesticides
- Paint fumes
- Exhaust fumes
It is important to avoid these substances, especially in high amounts. Obviously, caffeine and saturated fats are far less toxic than paint fumes or organophosphorus pesticides, but in excess, they can still be quite toxic to the body.
Phase II Detoxification Pathway
This detoxification pathway is referred to as the conjugation pathway, whereby the liver cells add another substance (such as cysteine, glycine or a sulphur molecule) to a toxic chemical or drug, to render it less harmful. This makes the toxin or drug water-soluble, so it can then be excreted from the body through watery fluids such as bile or urine.
So, phase I either directly neutralizes a toxin or modifies the toxic chemical to form substances which are then neutralized by the phase II detoxification pathway. These two detoxification pathways of the liver are what allow our bodies to effectively neutralize and eliminate toxins. The proper functioning of the liver's detoxification systems is essential for health and the prevention of disease. The more toxins that we are exposed to, the harder these pathways have to work, and when overworked or overactive, they can begin to function less efficiently, and as a result, our toxic load becomes much higher, and our risk for disease far greater.
Issues with Detoxification Pathways
If liver health is impaired, it inhibits the liver’s ability to detox efficiently, and consequently, our health suffers. Rather than being neutralized, the toxins accumulate in the body, and can lead to various health symptoms, including:
- Disturbed sleep
- Itchy skin
- Muscle pain or cramps
- Extreme tiredness
- Clammy hands
- Trouble breathing
- Digestive symptoms
- Fluid retention (edema), such as in your abdomen
- Difficulty tolerating exercise
- Jaundice (eyes and skin may look yellow; an extreme sign)
Genetic factors can also play a role in your liver’s ability to detox, as does your age. For example, babies have less capability to detox compared to older children, and older adults have less detoxification capacity than younger adults do. The ability to detox starts to decline after your mid-forties.
Chronic inflammation and infections can also stand in the way of detox, and may lead to lower levels of the liver enzymes needed to detoxify harmful compounds. Due to the above-mentioned reasons, it is important that we take good care of our liver and limit our exposure to toxins. Diet and lifestyle also play a huge role in liver health, as well as in how well we detox.
When overburdened with toxins, the liver can also develop diseases. There are many kinds of liver diseases, including those caused by viruses, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, liver cancer, and inherited diseases such as hemochromatosis and Wilson disease. Examples of common diseases caused by a liver overloaded with toxins, drugs, poisons or too much alcohol include fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.
Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease is a condition in which fat builds up in your liver. There are two main types:
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
- Alcoholic fatty liver disease, also called alcoholic steatohepatitis
NAFLD is a type of fatty liver disease that is not related to heavy alcohol use. There are two kinds:
- Simple fatty liver, in which you have fat in your liver but little or no inflammation or liver cell damage. Simple fatty liver typically does not get bad enough to cause liver damage or complications.
- Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), in which you have inflammation and liver cell damage, as well as fat in your liver. Inflammation and liver cell damage can cause fibrosis, or scarring, of the liver. NASH may lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is due to heavy alcohol use. Your liver breaks down most of the alcohol you drink, so it can be removed from the body. However, the process of breaking it down can generate harmful substances. These substances can damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body's natural defenses. The more alcohol that you drink, the more you damage your liver. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the earliest stage of alcohol-related liver disease. The next stages are alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver. Scar tissue forms because of injury or long-term disease. Scar tissue cannot do what healthy liver tissue does, such as make protein, help fight infections, clean the blood, help digest food and store energy, etc. Cirrhosis can lead to a number of complications and health issues throughout the body, such as:
- Easy bruising or bleeding, or nosebleeds
- Swelling of the abdomen or legs
- Extra sensitivity to medicines
- High blood pressure in the vein entering the liver
- Enlarged veins called varices in the esophagus and stomach. Varices can bleed suddenly.
- Kidney failure
- Severe itching
Regenerating the Liver
Thankfully, the liver can be regenerated. In fact, the liver is the only visceral organ that possesses the capacity to regenerate—another amazing feat of this fascinating organ. It is known that as little as 51% of the original liver mass can regenerate back to its full size.
How Long Does It Take to Regenerate the Liver?
When talking about the liver’s ability to heal itself, most people are always in a rush to know how long it will take. This is an understandable question, but one that is difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Everybody’s body is different, and the progression and type of liver disease, a person’s age, weight, and overall health are all contributing factors when it comes to how long it takes the liver to repair itself from a liver disease.
The liver is actually constantly in a state of regeneration. The moment it stops processing alcohol and other toxins, it begins the process of healing itself. This process could take as few as four weeks or as long as several years—it really all depends on the health of the individual person.
One thing is certain, you cannot heal your liver overnight. Healing the liver requires that you implement new health practices and maintain them over time, and may also require you to work with your doctor to measure your liver enzymes to measure the upward progression of your liver’s health.
Maintaining & Improving Liver Health
Healing the liver requires you to heal your physical body from the damage caused by alcoholism or prolonged toxic build up. Some of the key ways to heal the liver, and the physical body, are to:
- Drink a lot of high quality water, as one of the very best things you can do for your liver is flush it with pure, clean, unadulterated water. This does not mean using other liquids like tea, or juice, but water. Water has healing properties and is capable of flushing toxins from the liver.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise improves circulation and metabolism, and lowers inflammation, all of which assist with liver health and function.
- Eat lots of veggies (broccoli, carrots, and green leafy vegetables especially).
- Eat acidic fruits like grapefruit, berries, grapes, lemons, and oranges.
- Eat foods high in Omega-3, like fish, nuts, and healthy oils like olive oil.
- Eat plenty of garlic.
- Eat foods high in fiber like oatmeal.
- Drink coffee. Yes, coffee is actually good for your liver.
- Drink green tea.
- Maintain a plant-based diet as much as possible, and focus on whole foods that are organically grown (no GMOs or toxic pesticides).
It is also essential that you cut toxins out of your life as much as possible, including alcohol. Simply by reducing your toxic load, you will allow the liver to focus on healing itself, rather than just working hard to neutralize toxins.
It is also recommended to avoid:
- Eating foods high in fat or loaded with grease.
- Eating starchy foods like breads, pasta, or cakes and baked goods.
- Eating a lot of processed sugar or salt.
- Drinking soda.
- Consuming a lot of fatty animal proteins.
Healing the liver requires you to heal your whole body, and to change the habits and lifestyle behaviors that damaged the liver in the first place. It can be a long process at times, and it really depends on how damaged the liver is already, but it is worth the effort, as a healthy liver is essential for a healthy body.
Take Care of Your Liver So It Can Take Care of You
The liver is really an incredible organ that is constantly working for our benefit. It is one of the most important and underappreciated organs in the human body. Without it, we simply could not survive. The liver is our largest internal organ, and performs over 500 different tasks for the body. It is vital to the processes of digestion, detoxification, immune health, and much, much more.
When overburdened by biological and environmental toxins, the liver begins to function less efficiently, and this may lead to liver diseases, as well as other diseases in the body due to poor liver function.
The liver is the only visceral organ that possesses the capacity to regenerate, and liver health can be improved and maintained through proper dietary lifestyle and dietary habits, as well as from the assistance of herbal medicines that act on the liver.
As important as this organ is for overall health, it’s shocking how little most know about it. We hope that this article was informative for you and helped you to better understand this hard-working friend of ours. Show your liver some love by taking care of your physical health. The better we care for our body, the better the body can care for us, and we can maintain a mutual relationship of care that allows us to lead happy and healthy lives well into our later years.