Your liver is your body’s largest solid organ. It is vital to the body’s metabolic functions and immune system. Without a functioning liver, a person cannot survive.
The liver is a half-moon-shaped organ that’s fairly straight on the bottom. It’s tilted slightly in the body’s cavity, with the left portion above the stomach and the right portion above the first part of the small intestine.
Its location is mostly in the right upper portion of the abdomen, just below the diaphragm. A portion of the liver goes into the left upper abdomen as well.
On average, the liver weighs around
The liver has two main portions or lobes. Each lobe is further divided into eight segments. Each segment has an estimated 1,000 lobules or small lobes. Each of these lobules has a small tube (duct) that flows toward the common hepatic duct.
Compared to the rest of the body, the liver has a significant amount of blood flowing through it. An estimated 13 percent of the body’s blood, which is about a pint, is in the liver at any given time.
Use this interactive 3-D diagram to explore the liver:
The liver’s major functions are in the metabolic processes of the body. These include:
- breaking down or converting substances from food like fats and proteins
- extracting energy, vitamins, and minerals
- making toxins less harmful to the body and removing them from the bloodstream
The liver does this by receiving blood with nutrients from the digestive organs via a vein known as the portal vein. The many cells of the liver, known as hepatocytes, accept and filter this blood.
The liver also manufactures an estimated
The liver is truly an amazing organ because it has the capacity to regenerate. This means that after an injury or surgery to remove tissue, the liver tissue can grow back to a certain extent.
The liver starts growing back by having the existing cells enlarge. Then, new liver cells start to multiply.
In 1931, a study on rats first showed that within a week of removing two-thirds of a rat’s liver, the organ had returned to its initial weight. Other studies have confirmed these findings in rodents, and research has shown that human livers can behave similarly.
There are many types of diseases that can affect the liver and its functions. Some have successful treatments while others do not. Examples of common conditions that affect the liver include:
The condition can be congenital or occur as a result of inflammation. It usually requires surgery and in many cases a liver transplant.
Primary hemochromatosis is usually caused by genetic disorders that interfere with the production of red blood cells.
Secondary hemochromatosis is caused by consuming too much iron in your diet or from a blood transfusion. If you have severe anemia or another condition that requires frequent blood transfusions, you can have a buildup of iron in your blood. But, there are treatments to reduce the risk of this happening.
Other causes can include liver failure, or hepatitis B or C.
A third, but very rare, type is neonatal hemochromatosis, which happens when the liver of the fetus is damaged in the womb.
Viral hepatitis refers to a viral infection that causes liver inflammation. The hepatitis types have different letters, including A, B, C, D, and E. Each has different causes and severity.
Hepatitis B can cause a short- or long-term infection. In adults in the United States, the disease is
The condition can cause serious complications, including liver failure and cancer. There’s a vaccination against the disease to prevent it.
Hepatitis C can be an acute or chronic infection. It’s
Unprotected sexual contact with a person who carries the virus can transmit the infection, too. But, this is a less common occurrence.
This condition can cause inflammation that can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and NASH
Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is a form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease that causes scarring or fibrosis. People who carry extra weight and have conditions related to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, are more likely to have this disease.
If cancer develops in the liver, it destroys cells and affects the liver’s normal function. Liver cancer rates in the United States have tripled over the past 30 years.
People with cirrhosis have a very high risk of developing liver cancer.
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer. It starts in the liver’s cells.
Cirrhosis and liver failure
Cirrhosis of the liver is a condition where scar tissue
A number of conditions can cause cirrhosis. These include long-term excessive alcohol use, chronic hepatitis, or rare genetic disorders, such as Wilson’s disease.
The abdomen may become swollen and painful. Ascites can also cause edema, which is the swelling of the legs and ankles. If ascites become infected, it is called spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, a condition that can be fatal if it isn’t treated.
Another type of liver failure is acute liver failure, which is a fast deterioration of liver function. Acute liver failure can happen suddenly or within weeks or days. The
- taking too much acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- insufficient supply of blood to the liver
- drug overdose
- certain herbal or dietary supplements
Alcoholic liver disease
Alcoholic liver disease is a metabolic condition
- accumulation of fat in the liver cells
- inflammation of liver cells
The type of alcohol doesn’t affect whether you can develop the condition. What matters is the consumption of large quantities over time. Females are more likely to get the condition. Other risks include obesity and eating a high-fat diet, and a concurrent hepatitis C infection.
Many liver disease conditions begin with flu-like symptoms and progress to more severe signs of liver damage, such as jaundice and dark-colored urine.
Other symptoms of liver problems include:
- loss of appetite
- joint pain
- stomach discomfort or pain
- nose bleeds
- abnormal blood vessels on the skin (spider angiomas)
- itchy skin
- a low sex drive
More serious symptoms include:
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- confusion and difficulty thinking clearly
- abdominal swelling (ascites)
- swelling of the legs (edema)
- gynecomastia (when males start to develop breast tissue)
- enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)
- dark urine
- pale-colored stools
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, talk with your doctor immediately.
These lifestyle changes can help you keep your liver healthy:
- Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
- Practice safe sex with a condom.
- Don’t share needles or personal care items (razors, toothbrushes, etc.).
- Exercise regularly.
- Talk with your doctor about any medications you’re taking as they may affect your liver.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you consume since it takes a lot for your liver to break down the toxins from alcohol.
- Maintain a balanced diet with fiber and fatty fishes.