Image of liver inside the human body

13 Jun 2024

Love Your Liver

The liver is a vital organ holding approximately 13% of our total blood supply at any given time. It carries out a number of important functions and we need it to work to survive.

Some of its main roles include:
  1. detoxification: The liver processes toxins that are carried in the blood, including drugs, alcohol and environmental poisons;
  2. metabolism: It plays a central role in regulating the supply of energy and nutrients to the body. The liver converts glucose into glycogen for storage and can also convert it back to glucose when energy is needed. It also metabolises fats and proteins for use in bodily processes;
  3. production of bile: The liver produces bile, a substance that helps digest fats and absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) in the small intestine;
  4. synthesis of blood proteins: It manufactures many important proteins, including albumin (which helps to regulate fluid balance) and clotting factors necessary for blood coagulation;
  5. storage of nutrients: The liver stores vitamins and minerals, including iron and copper, and releases them to the blood when needed;
  6. breakdown of red blood cells: The liver plays a part in breaking down old and damaged red blood cells, which contain haemoglobin. The haemoglobin is processed, leading to the production of bilirubin. Bilirubin is excreted in bile. If this process isn’t working correctly and excessive bilirubin ends up in the bloodstream, it can result in jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes);
  7. regulation of cholesterol: It regulates the levels of cholesterol in the blood and uses cholesterol to make bile acids, which are essential for digestion;
  8. immune system support: The liver contains a large number of immune cells that help to identify and destroy bacteria and other pathogens that enter the blood from the gut.
A number of health conditions affect the liver. As the liver performs several essential functions, these conditions can have a significant impact on general health. Some important examples are:
  • Hepatitis: The term used to describe inflammation of the liver, usually the result of a viral infection or liver damage caused by drinking alcohol;
  • Alcohol-related Liver Disease: Caused by excessive alcohol consumption, leading to fat build-up, inflammation and scarring of the liver;
  • Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: Linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome, characterised by fat accumulation in the liver;
  • Haemochromatosis: A genetic disorder that runs in families. There is a build-up of iron in the body. This can lead to organ damage over time, including the liver.  
  • Primary Biliary Cholangitis: The immune system mistakenly attacks the bile ducts leading to a build-up of bile and potentially liver scarring;
  • Cirrhosis: Scarring (fibrosis) of the liver caused by long-term liver damage – the scar tissue prevents the liver working properly.

Symptoms of liver disease can be difficult to spot as they are not always obvious – they include fatigue, jaundice, itchy skin, swelling in the legs and abdomen and bruising easily. However, many individuals with liver disease do not experience symptoms until significant damage has occurred, making it a silent threat.

While not all liver disease or damage can be prevented, lifestyle choices can make a big difference when it comes to keeping your liver healthy. These include moderation in alcohol consumption, a balanced diet, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. If you are at risk of exposure, uptake of vaccinations against hepatitis A and B helps to protect you from infection. 

Treatment of liver disease varies depending on the specific diagnosis and stage. It may involve lifestyle changes, medication, or, in severe cases, a liver transplant. For those with alcohol-related liver disease, reducing alcohol consumption in a safe manner then maintaining abstinence from alcohol will be crucial.