The liver is a truly fascinating organ. It’s a workhorse that will tirelessly perform, given healthy conditions. Yet it’s complex, equally affected by and affecting your other bodily systems.
Just how does the liver work? Here’s a peek inside this essential organ.
Anatomy of Your Liver
The adult liver weighs about three pounds and is located inside the right-hand side of the abdomen, above and to the side of the stomach and the spleen. The gallblader is located beneath the liver, as are the upper part of the intestines and the pancreas.
Anyone who ate liver as a child (raise your hand if you were born in the 70s or earlier!) knows that the liver is reddish-brown and feels somewhat rubbery to the touch. (The liver of most large mammals tends to look and feel similar.)
In humans, the liver contains two lobes (a left lobe and a right lobe).
…and What it Does
It may not look especially pretty, but the liver performs a collection of jobs essential to life and to health.
Primarily, the liver filters the blood that arrives from the digestive tract. This means it must remove toxins and metabolize a varied and complex menu of chemicals and components, from the macros of your ham and cheese sandwich to the drugs you’re taking (whether over-the-counter or prescription).
But there’s more to it than that. The liver also (with the help of vitamin K) produces proteins essential for clotting, breaks down old or damaged blood cells, and breaks down fat so that the body can utilize the resulting energy. The liver performs a central role in metabolism to get, and keep, you going.
As a filter and energy producer, the liver is a body “work horse” that never sleeps, so to speak. It must not only cleanse the blood so you don’t self-poison, but it also needs to be healthy and strong enough to produce cells, biles and protein necessary to your body’s overall function.
The Liver’s Processes
Believe it or not, at any given time, the 3-lb. adult liver holds about one pint of your body’s blood. (For reference, there are only eight pints of blood total in the body.) The liver continuously cycles the blood, day and night.
Cells in the liver produce bile, which are transported via ducts from the two lobes to the duodenum and to the lower intestine. The bile helps carry waste away from the liver.
The liver works to break down fats so their nutrients can be utilized by the body. It also produces cholesterol, which, though it has received something of a “bad” name among the lay population (we’ll talk more about this and about “good” v. “bad” cholesterol in a later blog), is critical to fat transportation. In addition, the liver balances and regulates glucose and amino acids.
It clears bilirubin away, too. Bilirubin produces a yellowish color, which is why people with certain types of liver disease blocking the exit movement of bilirubin experience a yellowing of the skin and/or the eyes.
The byproducts of and waste from all these processes are eventually eliminated from the body via the feces.
Is Your Liver Healthy?
The liver is built to last (and to constantly work), so it takes quite a bit for it to get really “sick.” Unfortunately, it may show few, if any, signs of malfunction until matters get serious.
You should visit your doctor to ensure you’re healthy and, as much as you can, stick to a healthy diet, exercise and sleep regimen and maintain a healthy weight (fatty liver, for example, can be VERY hard to spot and for many people, will only be detected in a doctor’s office with specific tests).
Your best bet, at all times, is to stay at a correct weight for your height, gender, muscle mass and lifestyle and to avoid toxic substances (sorry, this does include alcohol, which in moderation is fine for many people but for some, could be problematic over time). If you’re worried, see your doctor and ask for tests (such as a CAT scan or ultrasound to take a “look inside”), then ask her how to proceed from there.
With good care, your liver should take care of you right back for many years to come.