Imagine a football inside of your chest.
Now imagine it’s one of your organs - that football is your liver.
The largest organ in the abdominal region (often compared to the size of a football), the human liver usually clocks in at about 3 pounds for adults (which is actually heavier than a football… Unless you’re Tom Brady), and is situated near the bottom of the rib cage, roughly between the heart and the stomach(1).
The liver is critical to the body’s health; it’s no wonder it grows to be your body’s second heaviest organ (your skin being the heaviest(2)).
And the liver has a lot to do. If organ size is any indicator of its importance, then it’s clear that the liver was intended to be quite the multi-tasker, simultaneously working several jobs in your body at once...
Filtering toxins, regulating levels of fat, sugar, and protein in the bloodstream, storing nutrients, transforming food into energy, processing drugs and alcohol, and playing a key role in digestion are just a few of the liver's major responsibilities.
And because the many functions of the liver affect your body in various ways, maintaining liver health means better overall health.
By the end of this article:
- You will understand the liver and all of its functions.
- You will know why the liver confused medical science in the past.
- You will learn what habits work for your liver and why.
- You will learn how to detox your liver.
A healthy liver means a healthy YOU.
- The Liver Mystery Throughout History -
Since the function of the liver is so complex, its precise use in the human body remained somewhat mysterious for a long time - many medical studies in the past came to different conclusions about what the liver’s primary purpose even was.
According to Zhou Xuehai from Reflections Upon Reading the Medical Classics (1895):
“The physician who knows how to harmonize the liver knows how to treat the hundred diseases(3).”
This sentiment indicates that like most medical philosophies, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has historically recognized the importance and dynamic nature of the liver as well. TCM views the liver as a yin organ and the gallbladder as its yang counterpart.
Both are organs of the wood element in TCM, supplying wood chi - energy - to the body. It’s easy to see how this idea of chi energy translates to western medicine since the liver is the organ that transforms nutritional substances from food into energy that the body can use.
Looking at another part of the world, ancient Greek scientist, Claudius Galenus (Galen), suggested that of the three most important organs, (including the heart and brain), the liver was the most important.
Galen concluded that the liver was the paramount organ because all other organs rely on the blood from a healthy liver to function well. According to Galen from On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body:
"The liver is the source of the veins and the principal instrument of sanguification(4)."
This view clashed with the traditional view of the liver held by Aristotle, causing differing opinions and confusion in the way medical science viewed the organ’s purpose for a long time.
These days, Aristotle’s view that the heart is the most important organ is widely acknowledged - it’s the first organ that grows in developing babies and it continues for the rest of our lives to supply blood to all other organs in the body so that they can function.
But there is some validity to Galen’s ancient assertion - he noticed just how much the body as a whole depends on a well-functioning liver.
So let’s look at everything your liver does for you...
"How Does the Liver Work?"
Your liver is like a factory - it's basically your body’s main processing/manufacturing center for all substances and nutrients introduced into the body. This organ is crucial to your metabolism and has three very important jobs to perform: Processing, producing, and storing nutrients and other substances that are consumed or enter the bloodstream(5)(6)(7).
- First, the liver filters blood received from the hepatic artery from the heart, and the hepatic portal vein from the intestines.
- Then it sorts through the substances in the blood for either processing or storage (the blood supplied from these organs also supplies the oxygen with which the liver needs to function).
- Intestinal blood supplies fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins to the liver for processing or storage.
- Carbs are transformed into sugars that the body uses for energy, it also stores these sugars for when the body is otherwise depleted of nutrients/energy - the liver regulates how much sugars, fats, and protein enters the bloodstream.
- The liver also constantly keeps your blood clean by meticulously filtering toxins (such as bilirubin and hemoglobin), and either sends them to the kidney to be converted to urine, or converts the toxins into bile, which is sent to the gallbladder for digestive purposes.
Here are a few things the liver CREATES for your body(8):
- The liver produces blood plasma proteins that carry fatty acids that helps blood clot when you’re bleeding.
- As mentioned before, the liver produces bile for the gallbladder.
- The liver makes cholesterol, which helps the body produce hormones.
- The liver generates vitamin D.
What Can Go Wrong?
There are a number of illnesses associated with the liver. Because the liver has so much to do, there’s a lot that can go wrong...
Common Symptoms of an Unhealthy Liver(9):
If you notice one or more of the symptoms above, it could indicate that there's a problem with your liver. It’s important to be in tune with your body’s needs and treat this organ the way it needs to be treated. Excessive alcoholism and unchecked obesity, as you’ll see, are common factors that harm the liver.
Some common conditions of the liver are:
This occurs when scar tissue has replaced healthy organ tissue, making the liver function improperly and could even lead to liver failure. When healthy cells become damaged over a long period of time, cirrhosis can be the consequence.
Cirrhosis can be caused by the usual things that affects the liver: excessive alcohol consumption, blocked bile ducts, an autoimmune disease, or viral hepatitis can all lead to scarring of the liver.
Cirrhosis cannot be cured(10)(11). The only way to completely fix the problem is through a liver transplant. But there are some behavioral changes that can be made to slow down the causes and spreading of cirrhosis. You should consult your doctor to see what will help you best.
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) occurs when there is too much fat in your liver making it difficult for the organ to function properly.
NAFLD occurs when alcohol is not the source of the excess of fat in the liver. There are a few types of NAFLD - the most common being simple fatty liver which doesn’t involve inflammation in the liver and is usually benign.
Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) - which affects about 20% of those with NAFLD - is a more serious type of fatty liver disease that does involve inflammation and can lead to liver scarring or even liver cancer.
You are at higher risk for NAFLD if…
Alcohol can cause fatty liver disease - this is called ALD, and typically gets better when the patient simply stops drinking.
Generally, maintaining a healthy weight, diet, exercise regime, and regulating your consumption of alcohol are the best ways to keep the liver healthy.
Hepatitis is inflammation in the liver caused by either a virus, an autoimmune disease, or excessive alcohol consumption. Hepatitis can harm liver tissue or cause the liver to fail, damage the immune system, and can even spread to other people. Hepatitis can be either acute (temporary) or chronic (lasting). Hepatitis A, B, and C are most common.
The following may contribute to hepatitis:
- Using unclean needles for drugs
- Maintaining poor nutrition
- Consuming too much alcohol
- Practicing unprotected sex
- Having many sexual partners
Hepatitis A -
A virus that causes liver disease. Those with hepatitis A usually heal within two months, although it can lead to a potentially deadly liver infection. Hepatitis A can be vaccinated.
Hepatitis A may be acquired from consuming contaminated food or water.
Hepatitis B -
A virus that causes liver damage. Most people recover from hepatitis B within 6 months, but it may sometimes cause serious lifetime chronic infection.
Hepatitis B can be spread to other people. It can also be vaccinated.
Unprotected sex, using contaminated needles, or otherwise being in contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids can spread hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C -
Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver transplants. About 80% of patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic liver infection.
Hepatitis C shows no symptoms, and there are currently no vaccinations for the virus. However, according to WebMD:
“For hepatitis C, some people (approximately 40 to 80%) respond to a combination of the medications peginterferon and ribavirin.”
As with hepatitis B, hepatitis C is also transferable, and is most often spread through unprotected sex or sharing contaminated drug needles.
This occurs if your liver isn’t filtering enough bilirubin, (an orange-yellow pigmented substance found in blood cells). Jaundice causes skin and eyes to turn yellow. It most often occurs in babies but adults can have jaundice, too.
Hepatitis, a blocked bile duct, or liver disease related to alcohol could be the cause of jaundice. In adults, doctors don’t focus on treating jaundice, they focus on whatever is causing it.
If a blocked bile duct is the problem, surgery may be required.
5. Enlarged Liver(15)
Obesity, infection, metabolic syndrome, an autoimmune disease, or a buildup of toxins can lead to inflammation or a fatty liver that can cause the liver to swell to an unhealthy size.
A cyst or tumor could also be causing the liver to grow.
Treatment for enlarged liver depends on what’s causing it.
6. Liver Failure(16)
This occurs when the liver is damaged or is otherwise no longer capable of repairing itself. When the liver fails, it’s life-threatening and medical assistance is urgent.
Malnutrition, hepatitis C, hepatitis B, excessive alcoholism, and cirrhosis can all lead to liver failure.
Liver failure is typically a long, gradual process that happens over time and with age.
Acute liver failure, however, can happen within just a few days and can be very dangerous because it is very difficult to predict.
The body is an economy of systems that requires cooperation from each of its parts. Since your liver works together with the spleen, the pancreas, stomach, gallbladder, and kidneys, they are all located very close together near the same spot in the torso. Most people are aware that the stomach breaks down foods and liquids digested, but the spleen, kidneys, pancreas, and the gallbladder are in a way less-popular organs even though they are key factors in the the human metabolic system.
Here’s a quick overview of these organs that are vital to your metabolism and help keep your liver running smoothly(17).
The spleen stores blood and helps fight serious infections by producing white blood cells. Along with the liver and the kidneys, the spleen also acts as a filter for your blood, breaking down damaged and broken blood cells, keeping your bloodstream fresh and clean.
You can live without a spleen - your liver will take over the workload. But you don’t want to add an extra job for the liver on top of everything it’s already doing for you - the liver can become overwhelmed and perform poorly if it has too much to do.
Your kidneys filter toxins from the bloodstream, converts them to urine, then sends it through two tubes called ureters to be stored in the bladder.
The pancreas creates insulin and enzymes for digestion.
The liver takes toxins from the blood and converts them to bile to be sent to the Gallbladder. Bile is a corrosive substance that helps break down food. The gallbladder sends this bile to the intestines to further digest substances and break down waste.
Now, you can live without your gallbladder, (bile would be sent directly to your intestines rather than being stored in the gallbladder) but this would result in poor digestion. You want your gallbladder.
These organs, especially your liver, are constantly working hard for you. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is most active during the hours of 1-3 am while the body is resting(23).
So getting good sleep is important for liver health.
Too much fatty foods and alcohol too close to bedtime can overload your liver and possibly keep you tossing and turning all night.
Lack of rest further harms your liver and causes other health issues as well which can lead to vicious cycles of poor dietary and sleeping habits (and an unhealthy liver).
Liver disorders are common and widely studied. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and limited alcohol consumption are the most natural ways to deal with problems of the liver.
Liver protection may be even more effective if combined with other natural methods. Look out for these natural herbs:
Artichoke has been determined through medical studies to have antioxidant, choleretic, hepatoprotective, bile-enhancing and lipid-reducing properties. Further studies indicate that artichoke could be utilized to protect the liver and even help regenerate liver cells(18).
Angelica has been used throughout history - particularly by ancient eastern medicines - for its anti-inflammatory and diuretic qualities, and to aid with a wide range of ailments such as cold, flu, influenza, coughs, indigestion, arthritis, headache, fever, colic, rheumatism, hepatitis, indigestion, and the list goes on(19).
Chanca Piedra in Traditional Chinese Medicine has been studied for its effects on HBV (hepatitis B) - these studies seem promising so far(20).
Dandelion has been historically used for liver and kidney problems, as well as breast and uterus cancers. Studies testing the effects of dandelion against liver damage caused by sodium dichromate pollution hazards indicate that the plant has powerful hepatoprotective qualities(21).
Milk Thistle is the most well-researched plant regarding the effects on the liver. Silymarin, found in milk thistle, is an antioxidant that protects the hepatocyte cell membrane receptors from toxic agents, and promotes antifibrotic activity (scarring). Silymarin has been used for alcoholic liver disease, acute and chronic viral hepatitis and toxin-induced liver diseases(22).
Looking for a liver DETOX?
Along with some of the herbs above, vitamin C, vitamin E, and some B vitamins, as well as minerals such as zinc and selenium are good things to implement for a liver detox plan(24).
Problems of the liver can be quite serious. Your liver is your main metabolic powerhouse. Liver failure can start a dangerous chain reaction in your body that may be difficult to recover from.
Watch your weight.
Avoid hard medication.
And don’t consume too much alcohol.
Keep your liver happy and follow those simple guidelines.
We are exposed to a lot every day:
Germs, environmental toxins, air pollution, not to mention the alcohol, hard medications, junk food, and the occasional contaminated foods we may consume...
... Our bodies are constantly taking in substances that need to be processed by our livers.
That's why maintaining a healthy liver is so important. Consider herbal supplements if you think your liver needs that extra helping-hand.
***This article is intended to provide information and general education only - please don’t use this information to diagnose, treat, or cure any illness or medical condition, or as a substitute for medical advice.***
Hope this has been educational!
That's all for now.
To your health,
-Chris Ford - Director of Health Research