When you think of your body’s health, what comes to mind?
Strong muscles, flexible joints, and a quick-thinking brain, most likely.
However, there’s a contender for the top of this list that most people haven’t even considered – the liver.
Your liver is an unsung superstar.
It’s responsible for so many things, and a small change in your liver’s health can have an effect on every other system in your body. It’s also one of your largest organs, weighing in at over three pounds!
Your liver, along with your pancreas, gallbladder, and intestines, is responsible for digesting, absorbing, and processing all the energy and nutrients that enter your body.
Its main job is to filter the blood coming from your digestive system. The liver is where all of the newly digested nutrients are sorted, broken down, and distributed to every other organ in your body. It’s also where drugs are metabolized and where toxins are filtered out.
As you can see, your liver has an extremely important role!
“Every chemical that makes it into your bloodstream – be it through your lungs, stomach, or skin – meets up with your liver at some point. Since your liver is your body’s best defense when it comes to filtering out all those toxins, you need to treat it well.” -Suzanne Somers, actress and New York Times best-selling author
When you eat food, you masticate it in your mouth with your teeth, after which point stomach acid partially digests it before it is passed on to your small intestine.
There, it mixes with bile, an alkaline mix of digestive agents that your liver continually produces and stores in your gallbladder until you eat. Then, the stored bile enters your small intestine, where it (along with enzymes from your pancreas) digests fat and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), allowing them to be absorbed.
The liver is also essential for regulating cholesterol levels in your body. It oxidizes the cholesterol into a variety of bile acids which are then “pulled into the liver,” carried into the bile ducts, and then on out through the intestines.
Bile acid is recycled through your liver several times each day – that’s a lot of work for one organ!
Your red blood cells carry oxygen – and I don’t have to tell you how essential that is.
Oxygen is bound to a four-part protein called hemoglobin, which is responsible for the red color in blood. With an average life cycle of three months, red blood cells are recycled by your lymph nodes, spleen, and – you guessed it – your liver.
They can also be damaged due to illness or injury. The broken down fragments are filtered out by your immune system. The hemoglobin breaks down into iron and bilirubin – the chemical responsible for the yellow color in bruises and jaundice (yellowed skin) and the brown in poop – and are then filtered out by the liver and excreted back into the intestine.
Your liver is also responsible for manufacturing important molecules.
It makes the clotting protein prothrombin and albumin, the main protein in blood sera, which is the liquid portion of blood that carries hormones, drugs, and fatty acids throughout your body.
What happens when your liver gets damaged?
Your liver can become damaged in several ways.
Normally, the liver contains between 5 and 10% fat. More than that is called steatosis, or fatty liver disease. When too much fat accumulates in cells, they can’t function properly, and in severe cases they can even burst, causing scarring.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is the most common form of liver disease in the USA, with between 75 and 100 million cases. As its name suggests, it is the buildup of extra fat in liver cells that is not caused by alcohol.
NAFLD is caused by:
- metabolic syndrome
- high fructose corn syrup
- medications including steroids and aspirin
- insulin insensitivity
It’s also linked to diabetes. It is considered a lifestyle disease.
Most people have no symptoms – those who do have moderate to severe fatigue and a tender abdomen. Left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis and permanent scarring.
Fortunately, if caught early, it is a reversible disease – a change in diet and an increase in exercise are all it takes to ensure your liver functions at peak performance.
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“While there are diseases like hepatitis, as well as bacteria and viruses which can directly affect the liver, the most damage done to the organ is usually a reflection of our lifestyles. It is important to protect the liver, and the best and easiest way to do this is to focus on ways to improve your lifestyle,” says Dr Manny Alvarez, Chairman of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center, NJ.
You may have heard of cirrhosis – it killed 1.2 million people worldwide in 2013, and numbers are rising.
Severe scarring caused most commonly by chronic, long-term NAFLD, alcoholism, or hepatitis (both viral and inflammatory), its symptoms include fatigue, itching, high blood pressure, and jaundice.
Left untreated, it can lead to liver cancer, hepatic encepalopathy (liver failure and potentially coma), and kidney disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Damage
Liver disease affects your whole body, not just your liver. It can lead to gallstones, vitamin deficiency, and overworked organs.
As you can see, a poorly functioning liver can really affect your overall health.
Usually caused by gallstones or inflammation, cholestasis is the blocking of your bile duct between your liver and intestines. If your bile has too much cholesterol or bilirubin, usually from cirrhosis, drugs, or infection, or if your gallbladder is not emptying completely, gallstones can form, and they can be extremely painful.
Splenomegaly is the enlargement of your spleen, often caused by increased blood pressure (hypertension) in the portal vein (part of the main blood supply for your abdominal organs), which is in turn caused by liver damage. It often occurs when the spleen is overworked, destroying damaged red blood cells, and it causes abdominal, chest, and back pain.
Portal vein hypertension is also responsible for another common symptom of liver dysfunction – abdominal swelling, or ascites. Because fluid collects in the abdominal space, blood pressure drops in the rest of your body, causing the kidneys to retain more water. This exacerbates the problem, stresses the kidneys, and in extreme cases can cause kidney failure.
A lack of fat-soluble vitamins can also cause major problems:
- Vitamin K is important for blood clotting
- Vitamin D is essential for bone and muscle development
- Vitamin A is required for eye health
- Vitamin E deficiency causes nerve problems
Nick Giordano, marathon runner and NAFLD patient ponders,
“They say everyone has a moment in their life where they begin to view their lives differently and I believe that being diagnosed with liver disease was mine. Several years ago while reading Lance Armstrong’s book ‘It’s not about the bike!’ he made reference to a statement that he would say to himself on a daily basis while battling cancer and that statement stuck with me. ‘Get up….keep moving…..I’m alive!’ Now by no means do I intend to compare myself to someone with cancer, but my hope is that I can take my experience with liver disease and help educate others about it. Because I can get up….I can keep moving….I’m alive. I’m alive and able to make a difference.”
How do I look after my liver?
- Avoid foods containing regular or high fructose corn syrup
- Maintain a healthy weight – a BMI under 25, without excessive abdominal fat
- Limit your alcohol consumption – the FDA recommends one drink per day for women and two for men.
- Easy on the medication – take the minimum amount of medication, and ask your doctor before taking anything new, including supplements.
Images provided by: Shutterstock/ BlueRingMedia, theliverfoundation.org