The liver is such an amazing organ. It is the largest organ within the body, can re-generate itself and is responsible for as many as 500 critical functions and metabolic processes essential for life. It contains around 10% of the bodies blood and pumps around 1.4 litres through every minute (1). It has two blood supplies, one via the hepatic portal vein, which carries nutrient rich blood from the entire digestive tract, and the other via the hepatic artery, which carries oxygenated blood from the lungs. It is a vital component of the digestive system.
Amongst many important functions, the principle role of the liver, broadly, is to remove toxins from the body, process nutrients from the digestive tract and help regulate body metabolism. Some specific liver functions include:
Instant energy – The liver converts carbohydrates into glucose which is an instant source of energy for the body. If blood glucose levels are optimum, the liver converts glucose into glycogen for energy stores.
Makes bile – Bile that is made by the liver helps with the digestion and intestinal absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Detoxification – The liver filters harmful substances and then removes them via the kidneys as urea and small intestines as faeces.
Cholesterol – It produces cholesterol and special proteins that carry fats throughout the body.
Protein synthesis – It makes blood clotting proteins and proteins for blood plasma.
Between 2010 and 2012, liver disease was the 11th leading cause of premature death in Australia. More than 2 in 3 of these were male (69%). Interestingly, the premature death rate from liver disease decreased by a massive 48% between 1982 and 2012. This drop is mostly attributed to advances in disease management including lifestyle changes and an increase of hospitalisation for alcoholic liver failure. As the old adage goes ‘prevention is better than a cure’ and in the instance of liver disease, it rings true. Along with genetic predisposition, lifestyle choices are a major contributing factor towards developing many preliminary liver diseases that can lead to life threatening conditions (5).
Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease – Excessive consumption of alcohol “more than 2 drinks a day for women and more than 3 drinks per day for men” (6), can cause damage to liver cells reducing its ability to break down fats and so fatty liver begins to develop. Further consumption of excessive alcohol progresses fatty liver to alcoholic hepatitis causing inflammation and scarring. At this stage, abstinence can reverse the disease and stop further scaring. Continuation of excessive alcohol consumption can lead to alcoholic cirrhosis, the most advanced form of liver disease and cannot be reversed by abstinence! (7)
Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) – This is the development of fatty liver outside of alcohol consumption. Generally, it is thought that the liver’s ability to process excess triglycerides causes fats to deposit within liver cells. Causes may range from overweight -obesity, high blood triglycerides, high cholesterol, diabetes, rapid weight loss, starvation, protein malnutrition, enteral or parenteral feeding and genetic predisposition. Progression of NAFLD leads to liver swelling and scaring called Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH) and without treatment can lead to cirrhosis and cancer. There are no medical treatments for NAFLD. Positive results in reducing NAFLD come from lifestyle changes including good nutrition from eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise (6, 7, 8). Just another example of giving your body the materials it needs to heal itself! People who are obese should aim for a progressive and controlled loss of weight. Diabetics with high blood lipid levels should control their blood sugars.
Viral hepatitis A, B and C – Viral hepatitis is usually a short term viral infection but can become chronic and cause serious health problems and even be life threatening. The varying forms of the hepatitis virus can be contracted by ingesting infected foods to exposure through contaminated blood and body fluids. Apart from immunisation, there are no acute treatments for the hepatitis virus. The best you can do is to maintain a healthy functioning liver by eating a nutritious and healthy diet as well as getting regular exercise. Exclude any toxins in the diet like alcohol, cigarettes or recreational drugs to reduce the workload on the liver.
Other forms – Genetic predisposition are thought to cause liver disease such as hemochromatosis, wilson disease, tyrosinemia, alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency and Glycogen storage disease. Autoimmune disorders also attribute to liver disease such as primary biliary cholangitis (PBC), primary schlerosing cholangitis (PSC) and autoimmune hepatitis. All of these forms of liver disease are outside of lifestyle causation.
Your liver is your bodies battery. It stores and releases energy when you need it. It plays an essential role converting food into chemicals that are needed for life. Good nutrition plays a vital roll for optimal liver function and health. A well balanced diet that includes all vital food groups, and limits toxins, is your liver’s best defence against preventable disease. Alongside regular exercise, good nutrition can also reverse some forms of liver disease. Guidelines for healthy eating can be found at eatforhealth.