We have now moved down the body and having looked at the digestive system in the last week or so, I am going to cover major organs within that system that also have other roles in our body’s health. The liver and the kidneys. I will be covering those this week as I received a number of questions on liver health – some from concerned parents who are worried about teenage drinking. Alcohol is dangerous in the wrong hands there is no doubt but diet and other lifestyle issues also play a major role in keeping the liver healthy and functioning.
I remember a teenage client who wondered what all the fuss was about – you could get a transplant couldn’t you? I set him the task of researching the actual operation, first hand accounts of those who had undergone this major operation and the long lasting implications and side effects. Hasten to say he was a lot less cocky about the process on his next appointment.
I have met people who believe that as long as you give up smoking and drinking before you are 40 you will be absolutely fine! Yes, there are individuals who drink like a fish and live to 95 and some of them even smoked too. They also did not have the benefit of our high sugar modern diet and lack of exercise! I also would be tempted to ask them to pick my lottery numbers each week because they are the fortunate ones.
For the rest of us, the earlier we put some thought into the long term care of our major organs the better. I will admit that I was in my late 30’s before I woke up to this fact when given some rather indigestible truths about my prognosis. But better late than never. Part of that care comes from understanding the how, what and where an organ’s role is in our body and health. So here is the Liver – the guardian of our health. Here is the positioning of the liver – higher up in the chest than people imagine which is important when determining symptoms such as pain.
Eventually, everything that we put into our bodies, from scrambled eggs to toxins, goes through this vital organ and overwhelm is not a strong enough word to use for the effects on the liver over a relatively short period of time. One of the outcomes for example of this latest online drinking craze Neknomination is the high risk of liver damage and in some cases death.
There are entire books on the subject of this vital organ that is the guardian of our body, so this is merely an overview. We often regard our heart as the most important organ but for me the liver is very high up on the list of reasons to stay healthy.
Where is the liver?
The liver sits in the right upper part of the abdomen where it stretches halfway across the left upper abdomen. It is the largest internal organ of the body, weighing between 3 and 4 lbs. It is roughly triangular in shape and rests under the right diaphragm and the right lung. Beneath the liver is the gall bladder, attached by the bile duct, and there are blood vessels entering above the liver from the heart called the supra hepatic vena cava carrying oxygen rich blood from the heart. It contains veins called the portal system, which take the blood from the intestines to the liver before sending the blood back to the rest of the body.
What is the function of the liver?
The liver has two essential roles, making or processing chemicals and eliminating toxins and waste. Without the portal system none of the nutrients that we have carefully processed and passed into the intestines could be carried in the blood, through the liver, to nourish the body and provide us with energy.
It is not really the liver that does all the work but the millions and millions of cells within the liver that maintain the critical life processes. Specialist cells called hepatocytes deal with the raw materials our body runs on – proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
We are made of protein and we need to consume protein to renew cells and create new ones. It is necessary for the formation of hormones, which are the body’s chemical messengers, and also for making enzymes. Unfortunately the body does not necessarily accept all the protein that we consume and it needs to be changed to a format that is usable.
The liver will break down the consumed product and transform it into a protein that the body does recognise and can use efficiently. The process involves the raw material being absorbed from the blood in the portal veins into the surrounding hepatocytes where it is synthesised by the enzymes and passed back into the blood. Any waste however is not re-absorbed into the bloodstream but prepared for elimination.
Carbohydrates are formed from the three essential elements of life, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are most commonly in the form of sugars, which provide us with energy. Our muscles are designed to burn sugar, or sugar like substances, whenever they work. The liver plays a vital role in the process of converting carbohydrates into the appropriate fuels that can be easily accessed by the muscles.
It does this by converting carbohydrates into two forms very similar to pure sugar. One is used for a quick fix and the other is put into storage for later use. The instant energy comes from glucose and the stored glycogen. A lack of sugar as fuel can lead to brain damage. The body being the survivor it is, makes sure that there is sufficient stored to provide us with energy when we need it, such as in the case of running from a rampaging bull or if we are faced with starvation.
The balance is critical, and a healthy liver will ensure that there is just enough sugar in the blood at all times.
Fats are not always the bad guys. We know that there are good fats and bad fats but the body does need fat for insulation and as a shock absorber to surround major organs. The liver turns the fat we eat into forms that can be built into or renew existing fatty tissue. Some of us have a little more of that than we might wish but it is our storehouse and vital to our wellbeing.
Finally, the liver ensures that waste products, both in the form of toxins that have found their way into the body and from by-products resulting from the thousands of chemical processes that are taking place throughout the body every minute of the day, are disposed of correctly
The waste disposal cells are called Kuppfer cells, after the man who discovered them. They are the Dyson’s of the cell fraternity, sucking up bacteria and toxins before handing them over to the hepatocytes for processing.
In the chapter on the respiratory system I looked at both the common cold and influenza and the liver works as part of the immune system to weaken or destroy these harmful germs. This is why following a healthy liver programme can have such a tremendous effect on your general health, particularly in the winter months when there are so many more infections around.
An example of a toxic by-product is the ammonia produced during the breakdown of protein. It is poisonous, and the liver cells neutralise it sending the harmless waste, in the form of urea, back into the bloodstream. This applies to alcohol, medication or drugs so it is vitally important that your liver is functioning at an optimum level for your health and survival.
What other roles does the liver carry out?
The liver stores iron as well as other vitamins and minerals that you need, such as Vitamin B12.
Bilirubin is an orange-yellow waste product of red blood cells that can be toxic in large amounts in your body and can cause conditions like yellow jaundice. The liver excretes this bilirubin into the small bowel where bacteria can change it into the safer green coloured biliverdin.
The liver also makes clotting factors that stop bleeding after injury, and without which you could bleed to death.
The liver helps manage the cholesterol in our body – and the body needs cholesterol – but like anything in excess it can do more harm than good. It forms the base molecule for hormones like oestrogen and testosterone, and it is also the base for bile acids that are used to emulsify fat in the small bowel so that fat and fat soluble vitamins like E and K can be absorbed.
Do diet and lifestyle play that much of a role in liver health?
Well, think about everything that you put into your mouth and the changes it will go through before eventually leaving your body. I think of the liver as the guardian of my health because of all the complex processes it is in charge of, that ensure that I am not only nourished but am also protected from germs and toxins.
The saying “We are what we eat” is never more true as is “You are only as good as what you eat”. If you have adopted a diet strategy which involves eating high fat, processed, sugar laden and nutritionally sterile foods, you cannot expect your liver to transform it into the ultimate wonder diet. It can only work with what you give it and if you add excessive alcohol consumption into the equation, you will find that the liver can become overwhelmed, and will suffer damage.
The good news is that the liver regenerates extremely quickly provided it does not have scarred tissue. Within a matter of 6 weeks you can improve your liver health and therefore you general health quite dramatically.
In the next blog I will focus the disease cirrhosis, which is a general term for liver damage. I will look at some of the other reasons for liver damage but the main theme is about how our diet affects this major organ.
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