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Understanding the Liver

Where is the liver located in the body?

The liver is the largest organ in the body and is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, immediately under the diaphragm and weighs approximately three pounds. The size of the liver is proportional to the size of the person. No two livers are the same size.

What does the liver do?

The liver is a complex chemical “factory” that works 24 hours a day. Virtually all the blood returning from the intestinal tract to the heart passes through the liver via the portal vein. Anything a person consumes is absorbed into the bloodstream and passes through the liver. The liver is a complex organ that is essential to life. It is impossible to live without it. Specifically, the liver helps by:

  • Cleansing blood by metabolizing alcohol and other drugs and chemicals, destroying and neutralizing poisonous substances. 
  • Regulating the supply of body fuel by producing, storing and supplying quick energy (glucose) to keep the mind alert and the body active, and producing, storing and exporting fat. When the liver is failing due to severe damage, it is unable to produce the necessary glucose needed for survival.
  • Manufacturing many essential body proteins involved in transporting substances in the blood, clotting of blood, and providing resistance to infection.
  • Producing bile, which aids digestion.
  • Regulating the balance of sex hormones, thyroid hormones, cortisone and other adrenal hormones.
  • Regulating body cholesterol by producing, excreting and converting it into other essential substances.
  • Regulating the supply of essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron and copper.
  • Performing literally hundreds of other specific functions.

How can you take care of your liver?

  • Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Avoid taking medication unnecessarily.
  • Do not exceed the maximum daily dosages and do not mix alcohol and medication.
  • If you drink alcohol, have two or less drinks a day. Women should have even less.
  • Protect yourself from viral hepatitis A and B by getting vaccinated.
  • Avoid exposure to industrial chemicals.

How common is liver disease?

There are over 100 known liver diseases. The most common ones are:

  • Viral hepatitis A, B and C. Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the U.S, four times more prevalent than HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS.
  • Autoimmune liver diseases (autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cirrhosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis)
  • Alcohol - related liver disorder
  • Gallstones / Gallbladder disease
  • Diseases of the bile ducts.
  • Liver disorders in children (biliary atresia, metabolic disorders, neonatal hepatitis)
  • Cancer of the liver
  • Acute Fulminant Liver Failure (adults and children)

Liver Disease is a serious national problem. Ten percent of all Americans - over 25 million people - suffer liver disease or a related illness. Liver disease kills more than 26,000 Americans a year, ranking eighth in
disease-related deaths. Untreated, liver disease degrades liver function and may lead to cirrhosis, cancer or liver failure. Transplantation is the only remedy for liver failure, which is otherwise fatal.
Every year, nearly 400,000 Americans contract viral hepatitis: 125,000-150,000 new cases of Hepatitis A, nearly 150,000 new cases of Hepatitis B, and 30,000-50,000 new Hepatitis C infections, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 4 million Americans, or 1 in 50, are chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV).

What are the symptoms and signs of liver disease?

Consult your physician if you observe any of these signs or symptoms of liver disease:

  • Abnormally yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes. This is called jaundice, which is often the first and sometimes the only sign of liver disease.
  • Dark urine.
  • Grey, yellow or light colored stools.
  • Nausea, vomiting and/or loss of appetite.
  • Vomiting of blood, bloody or black stools. Intestinal bleeding can occur when liver diseases obstruct blood flow through the liver. The bleeding may result in vomiting of blood or bloody stools.
  • Abdominal swelling. Liver diseases may cause ascites, an accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity.
  • Prolonged generalized itching.
  • Unusual change of weight, an increase or decrease of more than 5% within two months.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Sleep disturbances, mental confusion and coma are present in severe liver disease. These result from an accumulation of toxic substances in the body, which impair brain function.
  • Fatigue or loss of stamina.
  • Loss of sexual drive or performance.

Remember that many forms of liver disease can have no symptoms at all.