What Does the Liver Do?
As the body’s “chemical factory”, the liver plays an integral role in our lives. But what does it actually do? Read on to discover how the liver works and why it’s important to the body’s metabolic, detoxification, and immune system functions.
Not many of us will think about the function of our livers. After all, this football-sized organ is neatly tucked away in the body.
But just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean it should be out of mind.
Understanding more about the structure and function of your liver can help you live a healthier and happier life.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a simple guide to give you the know-how to make smarter decisions and impress all your friends at your next pub quiz.
What is the anatomy of the liver?
A healthy liver is a dark red-brown colour that weighs about three pounds.
The structure of the liver is a cone-shaped organ that is divided into two main lobes which are further subdivided into approximately 100,000 small lobes, or lobules.
Around 60% of the liver is made up of liver cells called hepatocytes. These absorb nutrients and detoxify and remove harmful substances from the blood.
How many livers are in the human body?
The human body only has one liver. Therefore, we must understand how the liver works and its role in keeping us healthy.
Functions of the liver / What is the function of the liver in the body?
So, what does the liver do in the human body? The simple answer is it can do a lot! Besides having the amazing ability to regenerate itself, it also serves many critical purposes to keep our bodies healthy and efficient. Here’s a quick roundup of how the liver functions in the human body.
- It produces and clears cholesterol in the body
The liver helps the body generate cholesterol and unique proteins that help clear fat from the body. Producing cholesterol is a vital function of the liver in the body because although cholesterol has negative connotations, it remains critical for producing hormones, vitamin D and enzymes to support digestion.
When it comes to the hepatic metabolism of cholesterol, the two most effective ways of eliminating cholesterol are through the liver. It helps the degradation of the compound to bile acids and advances the biliary secretion of cholesterol.
- It stores iron and processes haemoglobin
By acting as a sensor and iron level regulator, the liver is the central tissue which regulates systemic iron homeostasis. As the liver identifies changes in our systemic iron requirements, it regulates iron concentrations healthily and efficiently.
The haemoglobin process (a protein found in red blood cells) happens in the liver and helps the body carry oxygen to all our vital organs and tissues while transporting carbon dioxide back to our lungs.
- It converts harmful ammonia
Without the liver converting harmful ammonia effectively, toxic ammonia (NH3) will build within the body and generate negative manifestations such as lethargy, slurred speech, cerebral oedema, and asterixis.
- It regulates blood clotting
By making sure the amino acid levels in the bloodstream remain healthy, the liver regulates blood clotting.
Blood clotting coagulants are created using vitamin K, which can only be absorbed with the assistance of bile – a fluid found in the liver.
The structure and function of the liver play a key role in hemostasis as the site of synthesis of many of the proteins involved in the coagulation, antithrombotic and fibrinolytic systems that interact to both establish hemostasis and prevent thrombosis.
- It fights and resists infections
By producing immune cells, the liver allows us to fight infections. This highly efficient organ contains multiple resident immune cells and is considered 'an innate immune organ’ by professional medical researchers.
As part of the filtering process, the liver also removes bacteria from the bloodstream to help us resist infections.
- It helps us maintain blood sugar levels
The liver stores/releases glucose to regulate blood sugar levels. Referred to as a “glucose reservoir”, the liver supplies sugar by turning glycogen into glucose via a process called “glycogenolysis”.
- It breaks down fats and eliminates waste
In producing around 800ml to 1,000ml of bile each day, the liver reduces fats for absorption before carrying and removing the unwanted waste.
Bile is a fluid produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. For instance, when we eat food, our bile is carried from the gallbladder into the intestines to break down the fats in the body. So, bile remains crucial for our body to separate the nutrients we need from toxins and waste.
- It processes blood leaving the digestive tract
As mentioned, one of the main functions of the liver in the body is to process the blood leaving our digestive tract (Mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus).
The liver helps our digestive system break down food into nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
- It metabolises carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
Metabolism is a vital function of the liver, causing a chemical reaction within our body cells that converts food into energy. The liver facilitates this life-sustaining process, replenishing the body with vital nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
- It supplies the body with essential substances
The liver stores numerous crucial nutrients, including glycogen, fatty acids, vitamins A, D, E, K and B12, iron and copper to provide a constant supply of vital life-sustaining substances.
- It metabolises alcohol and drugs
The liver plays a key role in allowing drugs and alcohol to enter our bloodstream. While metabolising alcohol may sit more prevalently with some more so than others, metabolising drugs helps with essential healing, recovery and immediate emergency medical action.
- It metabolises essential hormones
The liver enables the activation/deactivation of certain crucial hormones, including thyroid hormones, glucagon-like peptide-1, and steroid hormones.
- It protects the body from toxins
The liver uses detoxification to protect the body from harmful toxins and foreign substances.
With various ways of managing toxins, the liver can break them down into safer substances, eliminate with bile or reorder them into a safer form. As a last resort, the liver will even store toxins to protect the rest of the body.
- It regulates blood levels of amino acids
By managing the systemic exposure of amino acids entering via the gastrointestinal tract, the liver processes the blood levels in our amino acids to replenish the necessary nutrients in protein.
- It breaks down old/damaged blood cells
Finally, another vital human liver function is to help degrade old red blood cells into breakdown products, such as bilirubin and other bile pigments.
So, when people ask “what is the job of the liver?”, the answer is a lot!
This major organ is responsible for keeping your body’s chemistry constant. If you don’t keep it healthy, you could develop unwanted diseases.
What diseases can develop in the liver?
There are many different types of liver disease. Many of which can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight and staying within recommended alcohol limits.
The human liver function performs hundreds of essential jobs and has an incredible ability to heal itself. But it can only stretch so far before it breaks.
Some of the most common types of liver disease include:
- Alcohol-related liver disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
Liver disease is a general term that refers to any conditions affecting the liver. These conditions can develop for different reasons, but they can all cause damage and affect its function.
While not all liver disease or damage can be prevented, your lifestyle choices can make a big difference when it comes to ke eping this vital organ healthy and working to its optimal standard.
Support the functionality and structure of your liver today
The good news is that 90% of liver disease is preventable. Now you know the role of the liver, it’s a simple case of taking the necessary steps to preserve its health.
If you want to learn more, start the simple test.