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Tour of the Organ Body, Part 1: The Liver

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Photo by v2osk from Unsplash

Published in the Humboldt Independent on September 28, 2021. 

About the size of a football and weighing roughly 3 pounds, your liver has up to 500 vital functions, earning it a dual identity as an organ and a gland. Located to the right of the stomach and below the breathing diaphragm, the liver is tucked under the right side of your rib cage.

Important Liver Functions

“Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.” –William James

You can’t live even one day without a liver, and it is the only visceral organ that can regenerate if part of it is damaged or removed, as told by the Greek myth about Prometheus. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to dine on his liver, which regrew after each daily meal, making for an eternal sentence.

Total liver failure can only be remedied by transplant. About 8,000 transplants are done in the US each year, with a five year survival rate of about 75%.

These are a few of the more important liver functions:

Blood filtration: The liver removes toxins such as drugs and alcohol from the bloodstream as all blood that passes through the digestive system then passes through the liver.

Removal of excess sugar from the bloodstream: The liver maintains healthy blood sugar levels by removing excess glucose from the bloodstream and processing it into glycogen stores. If needed, the liver can turn the glycogen back into glucose.

Infection resistance: The liver can remove bacteria from the bloodstream among the other things it filters

Vitamin and mineral storage: The liver stores vitamins A,D, E, K, and B12, as well as copper and iron and can secrete them into the bloodstream when needed.

Bile production: the liver produces about a quart of bile each day. Bile is a greenish fluid essential to digestion, breaking down fats for absorption in the small intestine. Bile is essential to the absorption of vitamin K.

Regulation of blood clotting: Using vitamin K to create coagulants, the liver is essential to healthy blood clotting.

Maintenance of amino acid levels in the bloodstream. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are the building blocks of the body’s structures and organs.

Albumin production: The liver produces albumin, a protein that carries nutrients through the bloodstream.

Rugged, but not invincible

…early signs of trouble may be difficult to detect…

The liver’s color results from as much as 13% of the body’s total volume of blood flowing through it at any given time. It pumps almost 2 quarts of blood through itself every minute.

The ancient Greeks believed the liver was the seat of blood and blood the stuff of courage. The term “lily-livered”, referring to a pale or lily-colored organ signifying a weak spirit or cowardice, piled on in the middle ages.

As rugged and self-regenerating as the liver is, early signs of trouble may be difficult to detect, sometimes resulting in severe disease virtually without warning.

When the liver is overburdened by heavy consumption of alcohol, the early stages of alcohol-related fatty liver disease can still be reversed by quitting drinking. Up to 10% of Americans are considered heavy drinkers and 10% of them will develop fatty liver disease. If unchecked, the disease progresses to acute alcoholic hepatitis, causing the liver to become inflamed. Not all cases can be treated successfully, and when too severe, cirrhosis results, often leading to liver failure.

Tied to the obesity epidemic and increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the modern world, it is estimated that 35-40% of Americans have a condition known as “non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.” This condition, if caught early, can sometimes be reversed or cured through improved diet and exercise. A minority of cases, if left untreated, can lead to liver failure, also known as cirrhosis.

Viral infections can also cause liver damage. Hepatitis comes in 5 different forms, A,B,C,D, and E. All cause acute short term damage while B,C, and D can cause lifelong conditions. It is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s population is affected by some form of hepatitis, making it a major world health concern.

Hepatitis A and E are caused by contaminated food and water, while B,C, and D can be spread by bodily fluids, or some sort of break in the skin such as needle use. Anti-viral medications are used for treatment and vaccines can prevent types A,B and D.

Types B and C are often associated with liver cancer. About 42,000 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in 2021, and about 30,000 people will die of the disease.

Drugs and your liver

If symptoms do appear, they are likely to be a good reason to se your provider.

The liver can also be damaged by prescription and recreational drug use. If you are taking more than one prescription medication, be sure to check with your pharmacist about the combined impact on your liver. Too much acetominaphen (Tylenol), a common over-the-counter pain medication, can cause liver damage when the recommended limit of 4,000 milligrams a day is exceeded. Seven thousand milligrams a day can lead to liver failure and death within days.

Illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine damage the liver and inhalants rob the body of oxygen, causing all organs to work much harder.

Legal or not, any substance that the liver recognizes as a toxin needing to be eliminated, if consumed in excess, can cause wear and tear that the organ will eventually not be able to recover from.

Unfortunately, many liver conditions advance to dangerous stages because there are seldom symptoms that anything is wrong. Even blood tests can fail to identify problems.

If symptoms do appear, they are likely to be a good reason to see your provider. Jaundice, or yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes, brownish urine, abdominal pain or swelling, itchy skin, pale stool, nausea and vomiting, and extreme fatigue could all point to a liver issue. Liver disease is one of the pre-existing conditions that increases the chances of death from Covid-19.

Submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health Outreach Department

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.