You might be reading this now after being diagnosed with cirrhosis or other liver disease, or you might simply be curious about how alcohol affects the liver. Regardless, understanding what the liver is and what it does is important – after all, your liver is the second largest organ in your body (with only your skin being larger). At any given time, the liver contains 10% of your total blood volume, filtering nearly 1 1/2 liters of blood per minute.
What Does the Liver Do?
So we know that the liver is large, but what does the liver do? Well, it turns out, the liver does a lot. In fact, it is involved in over 500 different functions that are vital for human health. This essential organ is involved in almost everything your body does.
Digestion and Nutrition
Within your liver, hepatocytes, which is the fancy term for liver cells, make a yellowish green fluid known as bile. Once made, the bile is transported to the gallbladder for storage. When you eat, the gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine, which aids in both digestion and absorption of fats. The salts in bile helps to neutralize stomach acid and coverts vitamin D to a form that your body can use.
Your liver also converts the fat you eat into energy for your body. In addition, protein from your food is broken down into amino acids in the liver before the amino acids are converted into glucose and fat. The liver also helps regulate your cholesterol levels.
Liver and Protein
Your liver plays an essential role in producing protein in your body. One such protein, albumin, regulates your blood volume, as well as other fluids in your body. If your body’s albumin levels are too low, you can begin retaining fluids, leading to swollen legs.
Ferritin is another protein produced in the liver. This protein is essential for iron storage – if your body can’t store enough iron, you can become anemic. In people with anemia, it becomes difficult for oxygenated blood to reach all of the vital organs, causing you to have difficulty breathing or exercising.
Blood and Circulation
Because the liver is vital in the production of protein, it also plays a role in blood clotting. When you begin bleeding, plasma proteins known as coagulation factors are activated, helping your blood to clot and prevent a hemorrhage. These coagulation factors are produced in the liver. In addition, the liver also produces the bile salts necessary to absorb and synthesize vitamin K. Uncontrolled bleeding is more likely to occur when vitamin K levels are too low.
In addition to making proteins, the liver is also responsible for converting various essential hormones in the body. For example, the liver converts the thyroid hormone into an active form that is then used to modulate your metabolism. The IGF-1 hormone is also secreted by the liver, promoting healthy cell growth. Angiotensinogen is also produced in this organ, regulating your kidneys’ sodium and potassium levels, directly impacting your blood pressure.
Perhaps the most well-known function of the liver is its role as your body’s filtration system. The liver helps the spleen remove old red blood cells, turning them into bilirubin and bile pigments, which are then eliminated from the body via urine and stool.
Your liver is also responsible for breaking down and filtering toxins from medications (even those you are prescribed!), alcohol, caffeine, and illicit drugs. Toxins filtered by the liver can also be found in food colorings, artificial sweeteners, pesticides on food, preservatives, or even fumes and air pollution. A healthy liver can break down toxins to keep the toxins from accumulating in your bloodstream. When the liver can’t fully break down toxins from medications or drugs, an overdose can occur.
Can you Live Without a Liver?
With all of the important functions of this organ, can a person live without a liver? Absolutely not. In fact, if your liver is severely damaged, without treatment, you will not be expected to live longer than several months. Inflammation of the liver can make it extremely difficult for the liver to perform its vital functions, either reducing the level of functioning or stopping it altogether. If your liver can’t filter out toxins, for example, medications and other substances can build up in your body, affecting your heart, brain, and other organs. If your liver can’t regulate bile levels, your digestion can be impacted and you can develop a condition known as jaundice, where your eyes and skin begin to yellow.
As you can see, it is essential to have a healthy liver. If you drink or use drugs, it is important to talk to your doctor so that he or she can check your liver for damage and begin treatment at the first signs of liver disease.