Did you know that every day, your liver might swell up by 40% and shrink hours later? The liver is our largest internal organ, weighing about 1.6 kilograms, situated just below our diaphragm in the upper right of our abdomen. It sits atop the stomach, which makes sense since the liver acts as the gatekeeper and purifier of everything we take in our mouth.
Some ancient civilizations believed the liver was the center of the soul and emotions, and the Greeks thought the liver was tied to our pleasures. But these days, the liver is not considered a “sexy” organ like the heart or brain, yet it’s function is critical to life. The liver has over 300 known functions, only second to the brain in number of functions.
No mechanical liver, but it regenerates
Unlike other organs, the liver can’t be replaced by a machine. If our kidney fails, we can go on dialysis. If our lungs fail, we have artificial respiration, but if our liver fails, there is no mechanical replacement. The only option for survival is a liver transplant.
The liver is irreplaceable by machines, but it is fascinating and fortunate that it is our only organ that can regenerate. If we somehow lose most of it, the remaining parts will regrow the missing parts. Liver physiologists believe this might be because, unlike other organ tissues that have at most 2 pairs of chromosomes, the liver cell has up to 8 pairs of chromosomes, giving it unique regenerative powers.
The function of the liver
The main function of the liver is to process the foods we ingest so they are useable by our tissues. Everything we eat is filtered through the blood supply of our liver before it goes anywhere else in our body. The liver receives a second blood supply (via the portal vein), that drains the blood of the intestines, where our food is absorbed. This blood passes through the liver, which acts as a gatekeeper, and processes the broken down food components before they can be released into the general blood circulation.
The liver generates multiple hormones, enzymes, blood clotting factors, and immune cells. Some of these substances appear to determine our taste for certain foods. Whether or not we are addicted to sweets seems to be determined by characteristics particular to our liver.
The liver is also a continuous monitor of our energy needs, and if it senses that we need instant energy, it will release a stored sugar called glycogen that will temporarily boost our blood sugar when we need it.
The most critical life saving function of our liver is that is the main detoxifier for our body. It receives whatever we take in that might be toxic. Beyond detoxifying alcohol, the liver also neutralizes most of the things that would otherwise make us sick. For example: food that might be stale. Back in our caveman days, before there was any food preservation, early humans where often eating potentially toxic substances, but the liver adapted to neutralize these toxins.
Liver swells and shrinks daily
Unlike most other organs that remain the same size day to day, the liver has a regular cycle of swelling and shrinking by up to 40% during a 24-hour period. The liver contains nearly 15% of our total blood supply. The individual cells called hepatocytes swell with blood depending on what functions the body needs at the moment.
“The liver is not a very sexy organ. It doesn’t look important. It just looks like a big blob. But it is quietly vital, the control tower of the body” says Valerie Gouon-Evans, a liver specialist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. In our next post we discuss ways we can help keep this big blob working better.
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