The liver may be the most unappreciated organ in your body. Heart, lungs, digestive tract, kidneys—our culture gives these organs plenty of attention, but to most people the function of their liver remains a mystery.
Some cultures consider the liver so important to good health that the groom promises his liver to his bride as opposed to his heart. Both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine relate anger with poor liver and gallbladder function.
Your liver is a large, meaty organ (about the size of a football), which for the typical adult weighs about three pounds. It is located on the right side of the belly, protected by the rib cage. Its two large sections are called the right and left lobes. It is the largest and, possibly, the most complex internal organ in your body. Its main function is to filter blood from the digestive tract before passing it on to the rest of the body. At any given moment, the liver may contain up to 13 percent of the body’s blood supply.
A Major Multi-Tasker
As a filter, the liver detoxifies and metabolizes chemicals. These chemicals come from the air we breathe; the food that we eat and drink; the perfumes, soaps, and deodorants we use on our bodies; and daily exposure to our environment, such as chemicals released when we use aerosol sprays. The liver makes sure that everything we need is absorbed and everything we don’t gets dumped.
Producing bile is another key function of the liver. This greenish liquid is stored in the gallbladder then excreted into the intestines to break down fats. Its greenish hue transitions to brown in the colon; darker shades indicate slower passage of waste, providing a visual marker for intestinal function. The liver also uses the bile to clear bilirubin from the blood-stream. Bilirubin comes from the breakup of hemoglobin in dead red blood cells and is associated with jaundice, a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and eyes—a visual marker for poor liver function. Stagnant bile may result in poor skin tone, acne, bad breath, depression, poor blood clotting, vision impairment, and immune dysfunction. Gallstones can develop from bile stagnation, but may also be caused by bile that has become too thick or liver damage resulting from use of drugs, alcohol, birth control pills, and other pharmaceuticals.
The liver also produces proteins that are important for blood clotting, blood plasma, and other functions. It can also convert protein to carbohydrates and fats. As blood passes through the liver, it processes nutrients and turns them into chemicals that the body can use and absorb readily. Anything the body cannot use or doesn’t need—especially toxins—is sent back to the intestines in the bile and eliminated along with other waste products.
The liver plays a significant role in managing blood-glucose levels. Glucose, a form of sugar, is the main source of energy for the individual cells in your body. A certain amount of excess blood glucose is captured by the liver and converted to a substance called glycogen, which then is stored within the organ. Whenever the body needs a quick surge of energy, such as when your glucose level drops, the liver processes the glycogen into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream.
Insulin, which is most commonly identified with blood glucose management, works in counterpoint to the liver. It is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which affects the ability of cells to collect glucose from the bloodstream. The liver affects how much glucose enters the bloodstream, while insulin affects how it exits the bloodstream (or fails to exit the bloodstream in the case of diabetics).
Triglycerides are broken down by the liver to produce energy. In the reverse process, it is the primary center for converting excess carbohydrates and proteins to fatty acids and triglycerides, which are then stored in fat reserves throughout the body. Considering its many roles in energy regulation, it’s easy to see how an impaired liver can lead to decreased energy levels.
One other very important function of the liver revolves around cholesterol management. Each day, your liver produces as much as 1 mg of cholesterol. In contrast, dietary sources contribute only one-quarter to one-third of that much cholesterol to your system. Both high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol, HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol, LDL) are produced by the liver. HDL is converted to LDL as it functions in the blood. LDL returning to the liver is removed from the bloodstream and flushed from the body. Poor liver function allows some LDL to remain in the bloodstream, resulting in elevated levels. Keep in mind that LDL does have an important role to play in cardiovascular health, but as with many things, too much is not good for you.
Causes of Liver Disease
One out of every ten Americans is affected by liver disease; more than 100 diseases can affect the liver. Of these, hepatitis and cirrhosis are the most common forms. Hepatitis manifests as inflammation of the liver, usually caused by viruses like hepatitis A, B, and C. Prevent it by practicing good sanitation habits; washing your hands before consuming food; practicing safe sex; and never sharing needles, razors, toothbrushes, or other personal items. Non-infectious causes of hepatitis include heavy drinking, drugs, allergic reactions, and obesity. Cirrhosis results from long-term damage to the liver and can lead to permanent scarring. The final phase of chronic liver disease leads to crippling cirrhosis and loss of liver function. Besides hepatitis C and alcoholism, other causes of cirrhosis include autoimmune inflammation of the liver, hepatitis B, metabolic disorders of iron and copper, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
As the occurrence of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome rise in the general population, NAFLD has become the fastest growing form of liver disease. According to Dr. Christopher Hobbs, “Fatty liver is associated with abnormal accumulation of triglycerides in the vacuoles (sacs) of liver cells, typically caused by excessive alcohol intake or obesity. The condition can impair liver function and trigger abnormal inflammation, contributing to eventual fibrosis and cirrhosis. It is usually reversible with improved diet and health habits, including discontinuation of alcohol consumption and reducing consumption of calories.”
A recent study found that 34 percent of adult Americans have excessive fat accumulation in the liver, mostly unrelated to alcohol abuse. This means that more than 60 million Americans suffer from NAFLD and the vast majority does not even realize they have the disease, let alone the impact it has on their health.
Edgar, This Is Your Liver Speaking
When your liver malfunctions it will let you know in a variety of ways. One of the most common signs of liver issues is fatigue. Impaired liver function disrupts the digestive process and leads to nutritional deficiencies, which affect your energy level. Another consequence of poor liver health is indigestion, characterized by vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and trouble digesting fats. If you suffer from liver disease, you will most likely bruise easily. Dark-colored urine is another telltale symptom that may reveal liver toxicity stemming from ingested substances such as acetaminophen, alcohol, or anabolic steroids. NAFLD itself is not associated with any specific symptoms. Initially, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal fullness and discomfort may occur. Once inflammation of the liver arises, the more serious symptoms appear.
Turning the Tide
So what can you do to take care of your liver? The good news is that NAFLD can be reversed. Unlike most other internal organs the liver can repair itself and create new healthy liver tissue.
Start out with a healthy diet and regular exercise to help your liver work well. Maintain a healthy weight. Eat a variety of foods from all the food groups: grains, protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and fats. Foods that contain a lot of fiber, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads, short-grain brown rice, and cereal are important as is choosing organic, fresh produce whenever possible—make sure to rinse them well before eating.
Beets and beet tops are the richest source of betaine, a natural liver detoxifier and bile thinner. Beets are easy to incorporate into meals. They can be cooked, grated raw in a salad, or juiced with other vegetables. Foods rich in sulfur are especially helpful in supporting your liver. Sulfur-containing compounds play a primary role in helping the liver detoxify a wide range of prescription medications, pesticides, and other types of environmental toxins. Foods in this category include onions, garlic, and egg yolks. The other key sulfur-containing food group is cruciferous vegetables. Unique sulfur compounds contained in these foods may be especially beneficial in the liver’s detoxification processes. Foods in this group include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
Alcohol damages or destroys liver cells and can lead to the buildup of fat in your liver. For people with liver disease, even a small amount of alcohol can make the disease worse. Other good practices include watching your consumption of fresh fish—especially those that may be exposed to mercury—and long-term use of copper pots and pans. Both can lead to a buildup of metals in your liver. If you have liver disease, avoid eating uncooked shellfish or oysters and limit consumption of foods with sugar or salt, as well as fatty foods.
Implement a regular sleep schedule; for many of us, liver function peaks between 11pm and 3am. During this time, sleep conserves energy the liver can employ in cleansing the blood.
Medicine, when taken incorrectly—taking too much or the wrong type—or when specific prescriptions are combined, can damage your liver. It is a good idea to review your list of prescriptions with a pharmacist, or be sure your health-care practitioner is aware of all the medications you take.
Several herbs and supplement products have demonstrated effectiveness in improving liver health. The use of milk thistle as a liver remedy dates back hundreds of years. It provides antioxidant effects as well as promoting rebuilding and normalizing functions. Phyllanthus contains liverprotective properties including detoxifying enzymes to support cleansing functions. It is the most widely studied and used herb for liver care in Asia. A combination of milk thistle and phyllanthus provides strong liver support. Other herbs offer 2,000 years of recorded human use for liver ailments, strongly supporting their safety.
There are a number of liver detoxification products on the market. Since the liver’s role in the body includes detoxification, these products may not be as successful as colon cleansing or intestinal detox products. Dr. Hobbs, while discussing the merits of detoxification, cautions that the process “can actually place a further burden on the liver, because this organ is most responsible for processing and helping to eliminate these toxins.” The buildup of toxins and metals in your liver may have happened over years, so a short-term detox may not be successful. One side effect from a detox is that many of the elements purged tend to accumulate in other parts of the body and we actually feel sick until they are purged from the body. A better option is to change your diet and lifestyle and allow your liver to detoxify itself.
Today’s world, filled with chemicals, pesticides, air pollution, cosmetics, and so forth, forces our livers to work harder than ever to clear toxins from our bodies. There are a number of herbs that can help support the health of your liver.