The Liver: Structure, Function, and Disease

Oct 25, 2019 | Colon Cancer, General Medical, Liver Disease

Where is the Liver?

Your liver is a large organ located mainly in the upper right section of your abdomen. It is located just below the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscular tissue that separates the chest and the abdomen.

The liver is the largest solid organ in the body. In fact, on average, an adult liver weighs about three pounds. If you were to hold your liver in your hands, it would be about the size of a football. This internal organ is also considered a gland because it secretes chemicals that the body uses outside the liver.

What Does the Liver Do?

The liver has a long list of different functions. The liver produces, detoxifies and stores various substances that are vital to bodily processes. The liver has ducts that connect to the gallbladder and intestines to help carry out some of those functions. The liver also requires a high volume of blood flow in order to complete all its tasks. Blood flow to the liver is second only in volume to that of the lungs. The necessary blood flow is provided by a rich network of blood vessels connected to the liver. The portal vein, rich with nutrients from the intestines flows directly to the liver where many of the metabolic processes take place including converting nutrients, extracting energy, and removing toxins.

The liver helps to regulate blood volume and blood clotting through the production of proteins including albumin. The liver also functions in partnership with the digestive system by secreting bile through bile ducts. Bile is a fluid released through bile ducts into the intestines which contains acids that help the intestines absorb fats as well as fat-soluble vitamins. The liver also stores many vitamins and minerals and releases them into the bloodstream when the body needs them.

The liver also metabolizes and stores carbohydrates. These are stored and used as forms of sugar which are vital for the function of red blood cells and the brain. The liver processes and stores some of the fats used for energy, as well as cholesterol. 

Finally, the liver works as a filter to help keep the body free of potentially harmful toxins. It helps to get rid of things the body produces like bilirubin from old red blood cells that break down. It also helps to get rid of toxins that enter the body from the outside such as drugs and alcohol. The liver breaks down proteins as well. This process produces ammonia which is toxic to the body, so the liver filters it and turns it into urea which is then sent to the kidneys and out of the body via urine.

What Are Common Types of Liver Disease?

Acute and chronic Hepatitis can cause liver disease. Viral Hepatitis A is usually short-lived and doesn’t cause permanent liver damage. It is often contracted in countries that do not have good sanitation systems or clean water. 

Hepatitis B is typically a more serious condition that can cause short term as well as long term illness including liver failure and cancer. Hepatitis B is contracted through sexual contact, or by using infected needles. This form of Hepatitis can be prevented by getting vaccinated.

Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through infected blood. Shared needles for drugs or tattoos can spread this liver disease. It can also be spread through sexual contact. Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic, and the inflammation can cause cancer, cirrhosis, and liver failure.

Cirrhosis is a condition where scar tissue replaces healthy tissue and causes the liver functions to fail. Cirrhosis can be a result of chronic hepatitis, excessive use of alcohol, or some rare genetic diseases. 

Hemochromatosis is yet another liver condition. It is caused when too much iron builds up in the body and damages the liver. 

While liver disease is commonly caused by excessive alcohol use, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an example where that is not the case. In this condition, inflammation is caused when excessive fat builds up in the liver. Obesity and related diseases such as type two diabetes increase the risk of NAFLD.

These liver diseases can be the result of a number of different causes. Viruses can cause disease. Things that we put into our bodies like medications (OTC and prescription), supplements, industrial chemicals, and alcohol can all lead to liver disease. Liver disease can also be the result of metabolic problems, genetic issues, or issues of the immune system.

The liver can be the primary or secondary location of cancer. While cancer can originate in the liver, it more often spreads from cancer in another part of the body. This is called metastasis or secondary cancer. Any cancer including colon cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and stomach cancer can metastasize in the liver. Wherever it originates, once cancer spreads to the liver, it generally forms one or more tumors in the liver. These tumors must be removed and/or treated with cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. Without treatment, liver cancer leads to liver failure and death.

Symptoms and Treatment of Liver Disease

Symptoms of liver disease can depend on the underlying cause and type of disease. However, common symptoms include swelling (especially of the legs), fatigue, bleeding or bruising easily, and jaundice. Jaundice is when the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow due to a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream. As the disease becomes more severe, the chance of jaundice and dark-colored urine increases.

The liver is very large and very resilient, working hard to regenerate and heal areas of tissue that are damaged. This means that it often takes a long time for liver disease symptoms to show up. Sometimes blood tests show an issue with the liver before there are other noticeable symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through specialized blood tests, a physical exam, and sometimes a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy involves removing a small amount of tissue from the liver that can then be tested and observed. Other imaging tests like a CT scan or an ultrasound may be used depending on the results of the initial tests. Treatment can range from lifestyle changes to antibiotics to surgery for a complete transplant. The correct treatment depends entirely on the source and nature of the liver disease.

Can I Prevent Liver Disease?

You can reduce your risk of liver disease by developing healthy habits that include a healthy diet, regular exercise and limited alcohol consumption. Practicing safe sex with a condom, never sharing needles, and getting vaccinated against Hepatitis will help lower your risk of developing liver disease.

How Does the Liver Regenerate?

Unlike many organs, the liver is able to regrow after it has been damaged or partially removed. The liver cells enlarge and then start to multiply, allowing the liver tissue to grow back. This is good news for those with liver failure who need a liver transplant. Instead of waiting for a donor to die, living organ transplant is now medically possible for livers in some cases. A tissue donation from a donor’s liver can be taken and then grown into a functional liver. The fully functioning liver can then be transplanted into the person in need. Often the section of liver taken from the healthy donor will grow back completely over time.

Regular medical care is vital to maintaining overall health, as well as determining when treatment is needed. The doctors at Gastroenterology Consultants of Savannah are committed to helping patients achieve and maintain optimal gastrointestinal health. We would love to partner with you to address your health concerns. Contact us today.