When was the last time you thought about your liver? After you enjoyed one too many adult beverages? The last time you took acetaminophen? Way back when in a biology class? Honestly… never? Or at least you can’t remember…? Perhaps you have a vague notion that the liver has some important functions like breaking down alcohol or medications, but that’s as far as you’ve gotten?
I don’t blame you. The liver isn’t exactly sexy or exciting. But it is important—very important—especially when it comes to metabolism.
What Does the Liver Do?
If it’s been a while since you took a biology class, here’s a quick refresher on the liver. It’s located in the upper abdomen on the right side, just below the diaphragm. Because it’s such a large organ, it takes up much of the space both under the ribs and even over to the left-hand side of the abdomen. It has a reddish-brown color and feels a bit firm and rubbery.
As the second largest organ in the body (after the skin), the liver weighs just over 3 lbs and is about the size of a football. It has numerous imperative metabolic functions. For example, it takes the nutrients from our diet and converts them into materials the body can use, stores them, and then supplies them to cells as needed. Plus, it takes in toxins and converts them into harmless materials to be removed from the body. 1
If you were to take out your liver and lay it down in front of you—please don’t—you’d see there’s a larger lobe on the right side and a smaller lobe on the left, separated by a band made of connective tissue which keeps the liver in place in the abdomen. Nestled into a small hallow underneath the liver is the gallbladder, which stores bile.
The liver is part of the digestive system as it takes the blood coming from the digestive organs (through the portal vein) and processes the nutrients, medications, and toxins to be stored, changed, detoxified, and then either sent back into the blood to be used by the cells that need them or eliminated through the bowel.
In addition, the liver creates proteins that help the blood clot (with the help of vitamin K) and also helps break down old, damaged blood cells that have served their useful purpose.
The Liver & Your Metabolism
No matter what type of diet you consume, your liver is involved in metabolism. It breaks down the fats you consume to produce energy by producing bile. It also helps ensure blood sugar (glucose) stays constant. After you consume carbohydrates, for example, it’s the liver that removes sugar from the blood to store it as a type of glycogen. And if your blood sugar levels drop too much, the liver breaks down the glycogen to release sugar back into the blood.
After you consume protein, the liver is important as it changes the amino acids found in foods to be used to produce energy or make carbohydrates or fats. Ammonia, a toxin, is a byproduct of this process, so the liver converts it to a less toxic substance (urea), which can then be transported to the kidneys and eliminated as urine.
Finally, the body also stores vitamins and minerals in the liver to be released as needed.
The liver literally has hundreds of purposes, and everything you eat or drink passes through it. It plays a role in:
- Maintaining and regulating blood sugar and insulin
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Regulating hormones like estrogen and testosterone
- Supporting immunity
- Producing and removing cholesterol
- And more.
Fortunately, it was designed for all of these tasks and is highly resilient and functions quite happily on a diet filled with healthy whole foods including plenty of vegetables and fruits and adequate levels of protein, carbs, and healthy fats.
It can, of course, be stressed if you develop a sickness or infection (such as Hepatitis A, B, or C) or when you overdose on drugs, alcohol, or even some herbs and spices.
Interestingly, the liver is so resilient that even if you remove up to two-thirds of it, the remaining part will regrow to replace what’s been removed within just six to eight weeks. Once it’s the same size it was before being removed, it returns to its previous function. This makes life-saving donor liver transplants possible for those who have a genetic fit.
Fatty Liver: A Growing Concern
Fatty liver disease, which is when too much fat (more than 5%) builds up in the liver, is becoming more common. In fact, up to 25% of people globally are affected. 2 Not only is it linked to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, but if it isn’t dealt with, it can progress to serious health issues and diseases.
The vast majority of cases of fatty liver in the past were caused by too much alcohol consumption. But now, there are many cases when alcohol isn’t involved in its development. It’s more common in people who are obese but it can also affect those who are normal weight. Additional factors that can contribute to it include:
- Carrying excess belly fat 3
- Insulin resistance 4
- High refined carb intake (including beverages) 5,6
- Impaired gut health. 7
Non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) is the most common liver disease. Fortunately, at this stage, it may be reversable. Sadly, it often goes undiagnosed until it has slowly developed into a more serious condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). With more fat accumulation and inflammation, this condition can lead to scar tissue and may progress to cirrhosis or liver cancer. 8 A fatty liver is also linked to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease.
How to “Detox Your Liver”
Loading up on products to help “detox the liver” may actually do more harm than good. 9, 10 But that doesn’t mean the liver doesn’t deserve a little TLC from time to time—especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
If your liver is stressed and overworked, fat can build up, often around the belly. And even if you drop calories, if you’re not being kind to your liver, it can make it more difficult to lose weight.
How do you know if your liver is stressed? Some symptoms include:
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Brain fog
- Skin issues like acne or rashes
- Digestive issues including acid reflux, bloating, constipation, and general indigestion
- Imbalance of blood sugar and insulin leading to decreased energy, increased cravings, and excessive thirst and urination.
- Slight pain on the right or center part of the abdomen
- Weight gain.
If you have symptoms you think might be caused by an unhappy liver, your doctor can send you for liver tests to see if you have elevated liver enzymes (e.g., AST and ALT) or high cholesterol, insulin, or triglyceride levels.
The best ways to help your liver are to make lifestyle changes, such as:
- Use medications only when necessary. Acetaminophen overuse is one of the most common causes of acute liver failure.
- Limit or eliminate alcohol.
- Consume whole foods and avoid processed foods loaded with corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, additives, preservatives, and artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
- Choose organic and free-range foods whenever possible.
- Eat more cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, which help your body eliminate toxins.
- If you are overweight or obese, lose weight. 11, 12
- Avoid overeating.
- Cut back on refined carbs. 5
- Stop smoking if you do.
- Exercise consistently on a daily basis. 13
- Consume foods that may be more beneficial to your liver like whey protein, 14, 15 green tea, 16 soluble fiber, 17 and monounsaturated fats. 18
- Under the care of a healthcare professional, some supplements may be worth considering, such as milk thistle, 19 vitamin E, 20 berberine, 21 and omega-3 fatty acids. 22
Giving the liver the support it needs and keeping it in top condition can help:
- Support a healthy metabolism
- Increase energy
- Boost immunity
- Promote digestive health
- Support clear skin
- Promote improved cognition and mood.
While the liver may never be all that sexy or exciting, now that you know how important it is, remember to treat it with some loving care, so it can continue to perform all of the amazing tasks it does every day to keep you healthy and strong.