What You Need to Know
- The liver is the largest organ in the human body. It performs over 500 functions, including digestion of proteins, mineral storage, bile production and blood filtration.
- The liver is about 3 pounds (the weight of a football) and can be found in the upper right abdomen, below the diaphragm.
- There are many disorders of the liver, including liver disease, hepatitis, liver cancer and cirrhosis.
- Liver disease has many causes, including genetics, infection and autoimmune diseases.
The liver performs many functions essential for good health and long life. Among its most important jobs are:
- Producing important substances. Your liver continually produces bile. This is a chemical that helps turn fats into energy that your body uses. Bile is necessary for the digestive process. Your liver also creates albumin. This is a blood protein that helps carry hormones, drugs and fatty acids throughout your body. Your liver also creates most of the substances that help your blood clot after injury.
- Processing bilirubin. The liver helps your body get rid of bilirubin, a substance found in bile. This happens from the breakdown of your red blood cells. Too much bilirubin in your body can cause jaundice. This is a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
- Removing waste products. When you take in a potentially toxic substance, like alcohol or medicine, your liver helps alter it and remove it from your body.
- Controlling immune responses. When bacteria, viruses and other harmful organisms enter your body, specialized cells in your liver can find and destroy these organisms.
- Maintaining glucose. The liver helps your body maintain a healthy level of blood sugar. Your liver supplies glucose to your blood when it’s needed. It also removes glucose from your blood when there’s too much.
There are many steps you can take to keep your liver functioning well and reduce your risk for liver disease:
- Stay up to date on your shots.
- Wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom, touching pets and before eating.
- Limit your exposure to toxins, such as cleaning supplies, chemicals and tobacco products.
- Keep your cholesterol within a normal range.
- If you have diabetes, keep your sugars in a normal range.
- Do not share needles, razors, toothbrushes or other personal items.
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink.
- Be careful about using medicine. Always talk with your health care provider about the medicines you’re taking, including over-the-counter products, such as pain relievers.
- Practice safe sex to reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis or other health problems.
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Many health problems can keep your liver from functioning properly and cause disease. There are several common symptoms of liver disease, including jaundice, liver failure and liver enlargement.
The types of liver disease include:
- Alcoholic Liver Disease. Alcoholic liver disease is a result of alcohol abuse. A large percentage of Americans drink alcohol, and most do not develop liver disease as a result. However, those who continue to consume alcohol excessively may cause injury to their liver.
- Cholestasis. This happens when the flow of bile from your liver is limited or blocked. Cholestasis can be caused by certain drugs, genetic factors or even pregnancy. It can also happen from a blockage caused by a tumor or a gallstone stuck in the body’s digestive system.
- Cirrhosis. This is a hardening of your liver due to scar tissue. Heavy alcohol use and viruses like hepatitis are common causes of cirrhosis. Diabetes, immune problems and genetic diseases can also cause the disease.
- Hepatitis. This is the name for any condition involving inflammation of your liver. There are many different types. Sometimes, excessive alcohol use, drugs or toxins cause hepatitis. Hepatitis can lead to liver failure, liver cancer and other life-threatening conditions.
- Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. This happens when there are fat deposits in the liver. The deposits prevent your liver from functioning properly and removing toxins from your body.
There are a number of tests that can determine how well the liver is functioning. Your doctor will assess your symptoms and determine the best approach. Your doctor may request:
Depending on the severity of the liver disease, treatment may be an option. Treatments vary depending on the specific disease but may include prescribed medication, a restrictive diet or surgery. If the liver damage is irreversible, a liver transplant may be necessary.