The liver plays a key role in your digestive system - performing as many as 500 different functions and breaking down harmful substances into by-products that leave your body in bile or into the blood and passed out into the urine.
When blood leaves your bowel it passes through the liver. Blood arrives at the liver from two sources: the hepatic portal vein and the hepatic arteries. The portal vein delivers nutrient-rich blood from the intestines and the arteries deliver blood from circulation. This blood flows through the liver tissue to the hepatic cells where many metabolic functions take place, including the production of bile. It is this processing of the blood that breaks down the nutrients and drugs into forms that are easier to use for the rest of the body. Blood then leaves the liver through the hepatic veins.
Your liver holds around 13 per cent of your body's blood supply at any time. It has two main lobes, both of which are made up of thousands of lobules. These lobules connect with increasing ducts to eventually form the common bile duct and this transports the bile to the gallbladder and duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).
The gall bladder
Attached to the right lobe of your liver is the gall bladder. The gall bladder is 7-10cm long and shaped like a pear. Bile produced by the liver's hepatic cells drains here and is concentrated and stored until needed for the digestion of fats.
When the liver goes wrong
Almost every organ in your body is supported by the liver and it is vital for survival - even 24 hours without liver function can be lethal. Because of its strategic location and multiple functions, the liver is also prone to many diseases. The most common diseases include:
- Viral Infections such as hepatitis A, B, C, D, E
- Alcohol damage
- Fatty liver
Diseases that interfere with liver function will lead to the malfunction of its processes - and may lead to a condition called cirrhosis of the liver. However, it has an amazing ability to regenerate and has a large reserve capacity. In most cases, the liver only produces symptoms after quite considerable damage.
Your liver's ability to regenerate
The liver is almost unique amongst the tissues of the body in its ability to regenerate. It is possible to remove three quarters of a normal liver and still expect it to grow back to full size. It is not quite a true regeneration however, as the growth returns the liver to original size, but loses some of the original form.
This regrowth helps your liver to deal with toxins and poisons like alcohol. However, every time your liver removes alcohol from your blood, some of its cells die. Your liver can grow new cells, but heavy use of alcohol will impair the liver's ability to regenerate - leading to scarring (cirrhosis). Often there are no symptoms of alcoholic liver disease until liver failure occurs.