What is the liver and what does it do?

The liver is the biggest gland in the body and a very important organ. It is located on the right side of the body underneath the ribs.

It is involved in numerous essential tasks including:

  • fighting off infections
  • cleaning toxins out of the blood
  • aiding digestion
  • and managing blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

The liver is unique in its ability to regenerate, and is the only visceral organ that can do so. Liver cells can regenerate up to 75 percent of the total cells.

The liver and alcohol

Alcohol is a toxin, and when we drink alcohol the liver works to filter it out of our blood. On average the liver is able to process approximately one unit of alcohol in one hour. This time can decrease or increase depending on the person consuming the alcohol; this is because body weight, gender, age and metabolism can impact how quickly the body processes alcohol. Other factors such as the food you have eaten, the strength of the alcohol consumed and the presence of any medication can all play a part in how long it takes for our liver to complete the filtration.

The liver and drugs

The liver is also the main organ when it comes to metabolising drugs. Enzymes in the liver break down the substances so that they can then be excreted in urine or faeces.  

The liver and cholesterol

Cholesterol is often spoken about in a negative context but our bodies need a certain amount of cholesterol in order to survive. The liver produces most of the cholesterol our body needs. It makes it possible for the substance to be distributed through the blood to essential organs. The liver also expels excess cholesterol which it secretes in bile.

The liver and digestion

In order for our body to receive the benefits from the food that we eat it has to extract the nutrients. The liver processes the nutrients absorbed by the small intestine. Bile from the liver also helps the body to absorb fat into the bloodstream.

The liver and blood sugar

The liver is able to manufacture and store glucose. When we eat food, the liver stores glucose as glycogen which can then be used at a later time. When we are asleep, or in between meals, the liver is able to produce glucose by turning glycogen to glucose or using amino acids, fat byproducts and other waste products to maintain blood sugar levels.

What conditions can develop due to problems with the liver?

When the liver is damaged it may be unable to perform some of its important functions, such as destroying bacteria and fighting infections.

Liver disease

This term is used to cover a variety of conditions causing problems with the liver.

  • Hepatitis. This condition refers to inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis can occur due to a viral infection or damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Viral hepatitis is split into several different types (A, B, C, D and E). Not all cases of hepatitis require treatment, and some clear up on their own. Hepatitis C is the most common type of liver infection in the UK and can be passed on through sexual contact or blood to blood (such as sharing needles). It can leave those infected with flu-like symptoms but it can easily go undetected without screening. Hepatitis C can be effectively treated with antiviral medications. Cases of Hepatitis E have been found to be increasing in Europe. It can be contracted by eating raw pork or offal.
  • Cirrhosis. This is the term given to scarring of the liver. It can be caused by hepatitis or alcohol consumption and can lead to complete liver failure. There is no cure for this condition, but its progression can be slowed by treating the underlying cause. Severe scarring can leave liver transplant being the only treatment option.
  • Alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). Alcohol can damage the liver, as it kills liver cells as it filters the alcohol. The liver is usually able to regenerate but prolonged exposure to alcohol can cause irreversible damage. This can lead to hepatitis and even cirrhosis. If alcohol damage is identified early enough then abstention or reduction in alcohol consumption might help to prevent the problem from getting worse.
  • Non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease (NAFLD). This condition is usually seen in overweight or obese people and can increase the risk of diabetes, kidney disease and high blood pressure. If the condition is detected at an early stage it is possible to reverse the effects.
  • Liver cancer. This is a serious health condition. It can be related to problems with the liver such as those listed above. Excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and obesity are thought to be risk factors for this type of cancer. The condition can cause symptoms such as unintentional weight loss, sickness and nausea, pain in the abdomen, feeling tired and weak, jaundice and itchy skin. Treatment can depend on how far the cancer has advanced.

How to keep the liver healthy

Maintaining good liver health is important for our overall well being because how the liver works can have an impact on many vital bodily functions. We’ve discussed the trend of ‘liver cleansing’ in a previous blog post which concluded that ‘detoxing’ or ‘cleansing’ the liver is not required, as the liver is capable of regenerating cells without the need for taking to extreme measures. The best way to look after your liver is to look after your overall health.

So instead, you should aim to follow a healthy lifestyle by eating a well-balanced diet, either avoiding alcohol altogether or keeping your intake to within the lower risk limits, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding any hepatitis risks.