The liver, gallbladder and duct system that creates, transports, stores, and releases bile into the digestive system.
Photo © A.D.A.M.
The liver is the heaviest organ in the body and is one of the largest. It's located in the upper right part of your belly under the ribs and is responsible for functions vital to life. The main functions of the liver is to process nutrients from food, make bile, remove toxins from the body and build proteins. It's easy to see how inflammation of the liver, or hepatitis, interferes with these important functions and can lead to poor health. Fortunately, the liver is extremely resilient and most cases of liver inflammation don't even come to medical attention, but in cases of severe liver disease, there can be serious interruption of these essential liver functions. Let's look a each of these functions a little closer.
Processing Nutrients from Food
The digestive system immediately begins to break down the food that we eat into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually these nutrients will enter the blood and travel to the liver through the hepatic portal system, the major pathway that blood takes from the digestive system to the liver. The liver will then process these nutrients in different ways, depending on the body's needs. It usually stores some of the nutrients in a form that the body can use for quick energy. The rest will be used to make other important chemicals the body needs. When the liver is severely damaged, such as in liver failure, it can't continue to process nutrients from the blood that the body must have. Without aggressive medical care, the absence of these essential liver functions can result in signs of serious illness like brain damage and coma.
Bile is a thick, green-yellow fluid that the liver produces to help digest food, especially fat, as it passes from the stomach to the intestines. This fluid is made in the liver, but is stored in a nearby sac called the gallbladder. When a person eats a meal heavy in fat, like a juicy steak, the body will use its store of bile to help break down the fats in the steak for digestion.
Removing Toxins from the Blood
All of the blood in the body will eventually pass through the liver. This is important because the liver needs to pull out any bad things in the blood, such as toxins, and remove them from the body. Some of these toxins are drugs, like penicillin and Tylenol, and other toxins are things that the body needs but is done with, like damaged cells, proteins and old hormones. The liver prepares all of these types of toxins to be removed from the body. However, when the liver is damaged, these toxins can't be removed and they start to accumulate creating problems.
A protein is a complex chemical that is essential to living things, like plants, animals and people. Proteins are everywhere in the body, and need to be constantly produced. The liver is in charge of building many kinds of proteins that the body uses every day. For instance, there are many proteins produced by the liver that are responsible for blood clotting. When the liver is damaged, sometimes the body isn't able to clot blood effectively. In mild cases, it just takes a longer time for bleeding to stop. However, in severe cases the blood wouldn't be able to clot. A simple cut on the skin would lead to continued bleeding (though not necessarily a dangerous amount), and possibly bruises.