This month, the doctor talks to us about the liver, why it’s
important and what it does in our body system. She also warns
us about drugs and diseases that will break it down. Please read
and learn more about the liver.
World Hepatitis Day falls in June every year. This year, I realized that while I have written about all the forms of hepatitis in the past, I have not written about the organ affected by hepatitis: the liver. The liver is the largest solid organ in the mammalian body. It weighs between 1.4 to 1.6kg and is about
as big as a fully pumped football. Most of us are never aware of our liver all our lives yet it is the most active organ in the body. In many African languages, the liver is the heart of love, joy and happiness. When the Acholi are happy they say, “Cwinya yom,” literally meaning “My liver is soft”. It is like our ancestors recognized the important role the liver plays, unlike the dear heart whose actual role is just the central pumping station.
The anatomy of the healthy liver
The liver sits safely in the ribcage below your right lung with part of it extending just below the left lung. It is dark reddishbrown in color; shaped a little like a rightangled triangle and has a smooth shiny surface. The liver is anchored in place by four ligaments (strong rope-like tissues). The liver is made up of cells called hepatocytes, which are arranged in groups called lobules, each one is shaped in a hexagon. There are thousands of lobules and each one is like a complete factory. The lobules are grouped into the two main lobes of the liver: the larger right lobe and the left lobe. The liver gets oxygen supply from a large blood vessel called the hepatic artery.
What is it’s purpose in the body?
The liver is in fact the busiest organ in the body. At any given time of the day, the liver holds 13% of the entire body’s blood supply. The liver has more than 500 functions which continue non-stop when we are awake and asleep. It detoxifies blood by regulating the levels of chemicals circulating. All blood from the stomach and intestines goes first by the liver where the liver breaks down, balances and creates nutrients which it either stores or sends to other body parts for storage and use. So, when people talk about foods, herbs and medicines that detoxify the body, take it with a pinch of salt, the liver is already doing the detoxifying. It also breaks down medicine to make it easier for the rest of the body to use or makes it non-toxic so that the rest of the body is not injured. The liver also breaks down alcohol to reduce its toxic effect on the body.
The common things the liver does:
• Helps in the production of hemoglobin
which is an essential component of red
• Stores iron.
• Produces a part of plasma which is the
watery part of blood
• Regulates blood clotting.
• Produces bile which breaks down fats
and carries waste away.
• Produces cholesterol and special
proteins which helps distribute fats to
where they are needed and stored in
• Regulates the amount of sugar needed
for energy by the body by converting
excess glucose (sugar) from food into
glycogen for storage. It later converts
this glycogen back to glucose for
energy when it is needed
• Regulation of blood levels of amino
acids, which form the building blocks
• Conversion of poisonous ammonia
to urea (urea is an end product of
protein metabolism and is excreted in
• Clearing the blood of drugs and other
poisonous substances, e.g alcohol.
• Helps the body resist infections by
making immune factors and removing
bacteria from the bloodstream.
• Clears bilirubin which is the by-product of dead red blood cells. If there is an accumulation of bilirubin in the blood, the skin and eyes turn yellow.
The regeneration property of the liver
The liver is the only organ in the body that is capable of regeneration. By regeneration, it means the liver can heal itself by regrowing new cells in the event of injury from mechanical, chemical or infection. When up to 2/3 of the liver cells are destroyed or 2/3 of the liver removed, a complete liver is in place within 8 to 15 days. This regeneration happens so that the liver remains at the right mass for the size of the organism so that its work continues without having cells do more work than they are meant to do.
Just because the liver is capable of regeneration, one should not think that it can withstand any kind of injury. If the liver is repeatedly injured, it developes scars. Liver scars are called cirrhosis. Areas of the liver with cirrhosis are incapable of regenerating healthy liver cells. The most common source of liver cirrhosis is alcohol, obesity and viruses.
Sometimes, the repeated damage can be due to drugs like paracetamol (commonly called Panadol) and cancer. If arrested and treated early though, the liver may heal without scar tissues forming.
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