April 2, 2024
April 1, 2024

What Is the Function of the Liver? A Guide to What the Liver Does

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What Is the Function of the Liver? A Guide to What the Liver Does

You might not think about it every day, but your liver performs multiple daily functions to keep you alive. This reddish-brown, cone-shaped organ is located in the upper right abdominal cavity, tucked underneath your rib cage. It sits atop the intestines and stomach in front of the kidneys, just below the diaphragm. 

So what is the function of the liver? Well, there are many functions, including the all-important task of clearing toxins from your blood. Blood vessels like the hepatic portal vein and hepatic artery are essential to proper liver function. The portal vein delivers nutrients and substances for the liver to process. At the same time, the hepatic artery ensures a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood flow to carry out its various tasks.

In this article, we’ll explore the liver's diverse functions and their importance for keeping you healthy. We’ll also cover some of the most common liver problems, underlining the critical need for maintaining a healthy liver.

What Is the Function of the Liver?

What is the function of the liver: internal anatomy of the human liver infographic

The liver holds about 13% of the human body's blood supply within its two main lobes. Each of these lobes is divided into eight segments, containing around 1,000 small lobules. These lobules connect to tiny ducts that merge into larger ones, culminating in the common hepatic duct. The bile produced by liver cells is transported through this duct to the gallbladder and the duodenum, the initial segment of the small intestine, via the common bile duct.

The liver's primary function is to excrete bile, a critical substance in waste removal and regulating blood chemicals. Bile carries waste products out of the liver, and all blood from the intestines and stomach passes through the liver for detoxification. Here, the liver modifies nutrients and drugs in the blood, making them more accessible for the body's use.

To date, researchers have identified over 500 vital functions of the liver, including the following:

  • Protein production: Synthesizing proteins for blood plasma and albumin
  • Blood clotting regulation: Manufacturing blood clotting factors
  • Detoxification: Clearing drugs and other toxins from the blood
  • Bile production: Facilitating the digestion and absorption of fats
  • Cholesterol manufacturing: Producing cholesterol necessary for various bodily functions
  • Hemoglobin processing: Utilizing iron from hemoglobin
  • Ammonia conversion: Transforming toxic ammonia into urea, a urine component
  • Amino acid regulation: Balancing amino acids in the blood
  • Glucose management: Converting excess glucose (blood sugar) into glycogen for storage
  • Infection resistance: Removing bacteria from the bloodstream and producing immune factors

The liver filters harmful substances, excreting byproducts into the blood or bile. These byproducts are either filtered out by the kidneys and expelled in urine or enter the intestines via bile and are eliminated through feces.

What Are the 4 Warning Signs of a Damaged Liver?

What is the function of the liver: man holding his belly

Several viruses, primarily the hepatitis viruses (A, B, C), can cause significant liver damage. Hepatitis A is often spread through contaminated food or water, mainly in areas with poor sanitation. You can avoid it by thoroughly washing hands after using the bathroom and before food preparation, being cautious with food and drink when traveling, and getting vaccinated for hepatitis A. 

Hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. Avoidance strategies include not sharing needles or personal care items (such as razors and toothbrushes), practicing safe sex, and getting vaccinated for hepatitis B.

The four warning signs of a damaged liver include:

  1. Jaundice: This condition causes yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It occurs due to a buildup of bilirubin, a byproduct of red blood cell breakdown, which the damaged liver cannot process efficiently.
  2. Abdominal pain and swelling: Particularly in the upper right side of the abdomen, this can indicate liver inflammation or enlargement. Swelling may also occur in the abdomen due to ascites, a buildup of fluid caused by liver malfunction.
  3. Dark urine and pale stools: Changes in urine and stool color can indicate liver issues. Dark urine can result from bilirubin being excreted through the kidneys, while pale or clay-colored stools may occur if the liver is not releasing enough bile into the intestine.
  4. Fatigue: Persistent tiredness or weakness can be a symptom of liver damage. This occurs due to the liver's reduced capability to detoxify the blood, affecting overall energy levels.

What Is Fatty Liver Disease?

Also called steatosis, fatty liver disease is a condition that occurs when excess fat builds up in the liver. It's a common condition becoming increasingly prevalent due to factors like obesity and unhealthy diets. The two main types of fatty liver disease are nonalcoholic and alcoholic.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common form, not caused by heavy alcohol use, and there are two subtypes. Simple fatty liver includes fat buildup but minimal or no liver inflammation or damage. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) includes fat buildup accompanied by inflammation and liver cell damage. NASH can lead to scarring (fibrosis), cirrhosis, or even liver cancer.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by excessive alcohol consumption. It follows a similar progression to NASH with potentially serious complications.

Diagnosing fatty liver disease can involve blood tests, imaging (ultrasound, CT scan, MRI), and sometimes a liver biopsy. 

What Foods Are Good for Liver Repair?

Your liver has the unique ability to regenerate itself after damage. In fact, it can regrow to its standard size after removing up to 90% of it. If you have a liver condition, your doctor will personalize your diet plan based on your needs. However, here are some general tips for supporting liver health.

Foods to limit: Reduce your intake of fatty, sugary, and salty foods, including most fast food and fried dishes. Avoid raw or undercooked shellfish as well.

Alcohol cessation: Discuss alcohol consumption with your doctor. Depending on your liver health, you may need to avoid alcohol entirely or strictly limit your intake.

Foods to eat: Enjoy a variety of foods from all food groups (grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy). Prioritize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for their fiber content, which helps your liver function optimally. Drink plenty of water to support your liver and overall health.

Diet Considerations for Specific Liver Diseases

Bile duct disease: Use fat substitutes and specific oils that are easily digested.

Cirrhosis: Limit salt intake and consult your doctor on appropriate protein levels.

Fatty liver disease: Focus on calorie control and high-fiber foods.

Hemochromatosis: Restrict iron-rich foods, cookware, and supplements. Avoid raw shellfish.

Hepatitis C: Similar to hemochromatosis, limit iron intake and salt.

Wilson Disease: Minimize copper-rich foods (chocolate, nuts, shellfish, mushrooms) and avoid copper cookware.

What Are Other Ways to Keep Your Liver Healthy?

Because the liver is an essential organ, complete liver failure can result in the need for a liver transplant, where the organ is totally or partially replaced with healthy liver tissue. To keep your liver healthy, consider these lifestyle habits.

  • Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity helps burn triglycerides for fuel and can help reverse a fatty liver
  • Avoid toxins: Limit direct contact with toxins from cleaning and aerosol products, insecticides, chemicals, and additives
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Excessive alcohol can damage liver cells and lead to swelling or scarring (cirrhosis)
  • Avoid overuse of medications: Over-the-counter and prescription drugs can stress the liver, especially when used excessively or mixed with alcohol
  • Stay hydrated: Adequate water intake helps the liver to function more efficiently
  • Get regular health check-ups: Routine screenings and blood tests can help detect liver issues early
  • Vaccination: Getting vaccinated for hepatitis can protect against these liver-damaging viruses
  • Manage underlying health conditions: Controlling conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol can help prevent liver damage

Engage In Proactive Care for Your Liver and Overall Health

What is the function of the liver: man drinking from his tumbler

What does the liver do? As you have learned, it is responsible for numerous processes that help keep you alive every day. Fortunately, there are many lifestyle choices you can make to ensure a healthy liver, such as following a balanced diet, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, and avoiding too much alcohol.

It’s important to be aware of certain signs of liver damage, including jaundice and dark stools, but you can also be proactive about your liver health when you don’t have symptoms. The Ezra Full Body Scan can help provide peace of mind by screening up to 13 organs, including your liver,  in just one hour. This cutting-edge screening tool may detect conditions such as fatty liver disease, which might otherwise go unnoticed. 

By detecting these changes early, you can have greater peace of mind and gain the opportunity to work with healthcare professionals in making lifestyle changes that can prevent disease from progressing.