7 Amazing Facts About Your Liver
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7 Amazing Facts About Your Liver

For starters, this essential organ—which weighs about 3 pounds—has over 500 functions.

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By Deborah Wilburn

The liver, one of the largest organs in the body, is one mighty multitasker. It performs critical metabolic functions, converting food into energy; it stores nutrients until your body needs them and neutralizes toxic substances or makes sure they’re excreted. We spoke with Nadia Javaid, MD, who practices family medicine at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California, to learn more about the liver—plus ways to keep this crucial organ healthy.

IT’S AN ENERGY WAREHOUSE

2 / 9 IT’S AN ENERGY WAREHOUSE

According to Dr. Javaid, one of the liver’s main functions is to remove sugar (glucose) from your blood, convert it to glycogen and store it. “Whenever your body needs energy, the liver can break it back down to glucose and send it into your blood stream,” she says. But the liver doesn’t act alone in removing and releasing glucose—it’s guided by the hormones insulin and glucagon. When levels are high (for instance, after eating) insulin is released into the blood stream, signaling the liver to absorb glucose. If it’s low (for instance, between meals), glucagon sends the message to release glucose and give you an energy boost.

IT’S A DETOX CENTER

3 / 9 IT’S A DETOX CENTER

Everything that you eat and drink is filtered through your liver, including medications. Nutrient-rich blood from the digestive system passes through the liver to be metabolized, stored, altered or detoxified, then passed back to the bloodstream or the bowel for elimination. In the process of metabolizing protein, it produces a toxic substance called ammonia. “The liver converts ammonia into urea, which is then excreted as urine,” says Javaid. “It also helps neutralize toxins such as drugs and alcohol.” 

IT’S A BILE FACTORY

4 / 9 IT’S A BILE FACTORY

“Bile is a fluid produced in the liver that breaks down fats and aids with digestion,” says Javaid. Another central function is to eliminate waste products, such as excess cholesterol. In order to get the job done, your liver produces about 800 to 1,000 ml of bile every day, then stores it in the gallbladder. If you’ve ever wondered what that greenish-yellow fluid is when you throw up on an empty stomach, it’s most likely bile. 

IT STASHES VITAMINS AND MINERALS

5 / 9 IT STASHES VITAMINS AND MINERALS

Essential vitamins like A, D, E, K and B12, along with minerals like iron and copper, are stored in the liver, then supplied to cells when needed. For example, vitamin K is necessary to produce certain coagulants that help with blood clotting, and iron is central to blood production. Seventy percent of your body’s iron is found in hemoglobin, a main component in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to tissues. Iron found in muscle cells is called myoglobin. Myoglobin in muscle cells contains, stores and releases oxygen.

IT REGENERATES ITSELF

6 / 9 IT REGENERATES ITSELF

“The liver is the only organ in the body that can do that,” says Javaid. As long as you’ve got 25 percent of your liver intact, it can regrow to its previous size, and will hum along performing all of its functions as it does so. The process of regrowth is incredibly speedy; it only takes between 8 and 15 days to create new liver tissue.

IT CARES ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT

7 / 9 IT CARES ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT

One function of the liver is to break down fat. But if you’re overweight fat can build up, making it difficult for the liver do its job well. This could lead to one of two types of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), one of which is more serious than the other:

  • Simple fatty liver disease: there is fat in your liver, but it doesn’t cause inflammation or cell damage.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): not only is there fat in your liver, but there is liver cell damage and inflammation. These two factors can lead to fibrosis of the liver (scarring), which may, in turn, cause liver cancer or cirrhosis.

The causes of NAFLD are poorly understood, but obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes are associated with higher risk.

IT CARES ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU DRINK

8 / 9 IT CARES ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU DRINK

Another liver function is to clear out toxins, like alcohol. Sounds good, but there’s a catch: when the liver breaks down the alcohol you drink, it produces harmful byproducts that can promote inflammation, damage liver cells and weaken your immune system. The more alcohol you drink on a regular basis, the higher your chance of developing alcohol-induced liver disease, which can lead to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. One of the primary causes of liver problems is alcohol abuse. 

SHOW YOUR LIVER SOME TLC

9 / 9 SHOW YOUR LIVER SOME TLC

What can you do to keep this vital organ healthy and strong? Here is Javaid’s cheat sheet:

  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Eat nutritious foods and exercise to maintain a healthy weight and control fat in the liver.
  • Talk to your doctor about any medicines and supplements you take. When taken incorrectly—by taking too much, or the wrong type, or by mixing them—the liver can be affected.
  • Take no more than 4 grams of acetaminophen per day. “When you go over that amount, it’s hard to be metabolized and broken up,” she says Javaid. “Some toxins in acetaminophen can build up and damage the liver.”

Wellness

Wellness

Wellness is a difficult word to define. Traditionally wellness has meant the opposite of illness and the absence of disease and disability. More recently wellness has come to describe something that you have personal control over. ...

Wellness is now a word used to describe living the best possible life you can regardless of whether you have a disease or disability. Your wellness is not only related to your physical health, but is a combination of things including spiritual wellness, social wellness, mental wellness and emotional wellness. Wellness is seen as a combination of mind, body and spirit. Different people may have different ideas about wellness. There is no single set standard for wellness and wellness is a difficult thing to quantify.
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