The liver is the human body's largest organ and weighs between three and five pounds in adults. It lies in the abdominal cavity on the right side under the rib cage and in contact with the diaphragm. In appearance, the liver is a glossy dark red due to the rich supply of blood flowing through it. In humans the liver is divided into two lobes, the right lobe measuring six to seven inches in length and the left closer to three inches in length. The gallbladder is located on the under surface of the liver's right lobe.
The liver is responsible for many vital life functions, which can be divided into three basic categories:
Regulation, synthesis, and secretion of substances key to maintaining the body's health
Storage of important nutrients including glycogen (glucose), vitamins A, D, B-12, and iron for release as needed by the body
Detoxification of the body: The liver must break down every substance toxic to the body including metabolic wastes (e.g. ammonia), insecticide and pesticide residues, drugs, alcohol, etc. Failure of this function will usually cause death in 12 to 24 hours.
An understanding of the liver's structure is key to understanding its function-and possible dysfunction. Of primary importance is the liver's vascular system. Only 25% of the liver's blood supply is arterial blood (coming from the heart). The remaining 75% of the liver's blood supply is venous blood (returning to the heart) from the portal vein. All of the venous blood returning from the small intestine, stomach, pancreas, and spleen converges in the portal vein, which means that everything absorbed by these organs hits the liver first. The liver then processes, stores, or eliminates these substances as needed by the body.
The nature of the liver's work necessarily exposes it to a number of threats, and it is also one of the organs most susceptible to injury. The working cells of the liver, called hepatocytes, are unique in their capacity to regenerate in response to liver injury or even after the surgical removal of part of the liver. This remarkable ability to react to damage and repair itself can, however, be compromised by repeated abuse, which can lead to liver failure and death.
The signs and symptoms of an unhealthy liver can include:
A tendency to bleed
Mental changes, such as confusion
Decreased growth (in children)
Ascites (fluid in the abdomen)
A blood test known as a "liver panel" will show an increase in liver enzymes in the bloodstream. These enzymes are released by dead liver cells and indicate that damage to the liver has occurred due to any number of factors.
How the Liver Maintains the Body's Health
Produces and excretes bile, which is stored in the gallbladder and aids in the digestion of foods. Bile salts (a component of bile) emulsify fats and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K for proper absorption. The liver also removes some fat-soluble toxins from the body.
Metabolizes proteins, including those responsible for normal blood clotting. The liver converts various amino acids into others as needed.
Converts the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4) into it more active form triiodothyronine (T3). The results of incomplete conversion can include hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue, weight gain, poor memory, and other debilitating conditions.
Creates GTF (Glucose Tolerance Factor) from chromium, niacin, and possibly glutathione. GTF is a necessary component in the proper regulation of blood-sugar levels.
Activates B vitamins into their biologically active coenzyme forms. The liver must transform nearly all nutrients into the biochemical forms that allow the body to store, transport, or use those nutrients.
Manufactures carnitine from lysine and other nutrients. Carnitine is a bionutrient that escorts fats into the mitochondria where they are used to generate ATP energy.
Extracts lactic acid from the bloodstream and converts it from a toxic waste to glycogen, an important reserve endurance fuel. Lactic acid is a byproduct of the metabolization of glucose and causes muscles to become sore when it accumulates.
Produces cholesterol and converts it into the various forms needed for blood transport.
Converts essential fatty acids such as GLA, EPA, and DHA into the lipoprotein forms necessary to allow transport via the bloodstream to the 50 trillion cells requiring fatty acids.
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