Most people associate the liver with a night of heavy drinking, and you've probably joked at some point that your liver is working overtime. But this organ does much more than filter alcohol. In fact, it’s one of the most crucial organs in the body. Below, five (pretty incredible) facts about the liver—and what you should know about taking care of yours.
It’s the second biggest organ
The liver is almost our biggest organ, second only to the skin. It’s about the size of a football, says Douglas T. Dieterich, MD, director of the Institute of Liver Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. It weighs about three pounds and is located on the right side of the body under the rib cage.
It’s the ultimate multitasker
“The liver has hundreds of purposes in the body,” says Dr. Dieterich. Everything we eat or drink passes through the liver and it manufactures the substances the body needs—turning proteins, fats, and carbs into energy or substances the body can store—and then sends the rest of it out in the form of bile. The liver monitors blood sugar and sends stores into the blood when your levels are low, and can remove alcohol and byproducts from meds in your blood and break them down to be eliminated. It also stores vitamins and minerals, and releases them into your system when needed. The liver plays a major role in producing proteins essential for blood clotting, as well, and it gets rid of old, damaged cells in the body.
“The liver actually does so many things that we have not been able to design a machine yet to actually replicate what it does,” says Dr. Dieterich, “like a dialysis machine does for kidney disease.”
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You don’t need to detox it
Clearly, your liver puts in major work every day to keep your body functioning properly. That’s led a lot of people to believe they need to help their liver along, or detox it of all the toxins it’s dealing with. The thing is, your liver is built to do just that, and it doesn’t need to be boosted through detox methods. “The liver is very resilient. I think all it really needs to function is a proper diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrates,” says Dr. Dieterich. “It really only has to work overtime when it's sick with a disease or infection.”
The other things that can cause stress are drug overdoses, large amounts of alcohol, and some natural herbs and spices that can cause liver toxicity. So if you’re living a reasonably healthy lifestyle and you don’t have a liver disease, your liver should be fine.
Hepatitis A, B, and C are the diseases that most commonly affect it
These viruses can affect your liver, but each one is transmitted differently and causes different symptoms. Here’s what you need to know:
Hepatitis A: This is passed through food and water and can make people very sick; but the good news is it never becomes chronic, and the even better news is there's a vaccine that all children in the United States are getting now to prevent hepatitis A, says Dr. Dieterich.
Hepatitis B: This virus is transmitted by blood and sex, but the most common method of transmission is from a mother to her baby at birth. There are more than one billion people on the planet who have been infected with hepatitis B and it's the leading cause of liver cancer in the world, says Dr. Dieterich. Still, it's very treatable and cures are being researched and are well on their way to reality. The hepatitis B vaccine has been available for over 25 years and is one of the only vaccines that can actually prevent cancer. Most U.S. children and adults have been vaccinated for hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C: This is the most common liver disease in the U.S.; it’s transmitted through infected needles, and there’s no vaccine for it. There's an epidemic among baby boomers and people under 30 who’ve used IV heroin, says Dr. Dieterich. Treatments are available for hepatitis C, and almost 99 % of cases can be cured with just one pill a day for two months. The major issue is to find the patients who have it and treat them early before they experience liver issues and failure, he says.
You can live without a whole one
Your liver is so resilient that if you remove a portion of it (even a third or two-thirds), the remaining part will grow out to replace the missing piece in a matter of six to eight weeks. As soon as it reaches the normal size, liver function is actually the same as it was before, says Dr. Dieterich. This makes living donor liver transplants possible if there’s a genetic fit.