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Our Liver Saves Us
More Than We Realize

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 25 in the December 29, 2010 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

The liver is a dull red organ that sits under your right rib cage, weighs in at about 1.5 kg, and is the largest glandular or secreting organ in the body. It has multiple functions. Blood is carried to the liver via two main routes. The portal vein carries blood containing elements of digested food molecules that are allowed to pass across the mucus membrane of the small intestine. The hepatic artery carries freshly oxygenated blood from the heart, branching off the aorta.

The liver is divided into four major lobes, each containing thousands of lobules, the basic functional unit. A recent development in cancer therapy is to remove lobes containing metastases. Within months, new growth and filling in of the space begins to occur, demonstrating the ability for healthy liver cells to regenerate.

Many functions are performed by the liver. It stores and maintains our body glucose levels. It manufactures some amino acids, cholesterol and other fatty molecules, essential for body growth and metabolism. Vitamins A, B12, D and K are stored for use in your liver, as well as many essential minerals. Bile is produced in the liver and dumped into the intestines to aid in digestion and breakdown of food products.

The portal vein carrying digested products flows to the liver first, because it is a wonderful filter. It is capable of filtering out toxins, metabolizing medications and alcohol. Best of all, it is self-cleaning and capable of keeping itself in pristine condition.

There is a lot of redundancy in the liver, and it is very difficult to spot problems until they progress to a later state. Our liver tends to save us from ourselves more times than we truly realize. A healthy lifestyle with a good diet is the best liver cleaner available.

"Hepa" is the Latin term for liver. Hepatologists are liver specialists. Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver of which there are multiple causes. Several different viruses can damage the liver. They are named by order of discovery: Hepatitis A, B, C and D. In reality, they are very different entities with different outcomes.

Presenting large amounts of alcohol to the liver for detoxification for long periods of time can alter its functioning and produce cirrhosis, which is a chronic type of inflammation that replaces normal liver lobules with non-funtioning material. Sometimes the detoxification process can take a toll and produce potent by-products that can destroy liver cells. Other times, the filtration process can capture circulating cancer cells, which may help explain why cancer metastases are often found in the liver.

We measure liver function by assessing the circulating levels of various enzymes and products produced in the liver. The liver functions so well that it is difficult to spot early warning signs of damage or cirrhosis. When the liver is damaged beyond repair, the technology for liver transplants has been around for decades, but donor livers tend to be scarce. It is another important reason why we need to discuss organ donation and to encourage people to sign the organ donation part of their driver's license.


Related resources:

Liver and Liver function tests from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

What Is the Liver? from Mama s Health.

Exploring Alcohol's Effects on Liver Function by Jacquelyn J. Maher, M.D.

Liver Function from World of Sports Science.

Liver Function Tests from MedlinePlus. Common tests that are used to evaluate how well the liver is working (liver function) include:
• Albumin
• Alpha-1 antitrypsin
• ALP
• ALT
• AST
• Gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT)
• Prothrombin time
• Serum bilirubin
• Urine bilirubin
• Site includes details on how each test is performed.

American Liver Foundation. Includes educational resources: Alcohol-Induced Liver Disease, Cirrhosis, Hepatitis A, Liver Cancer, and much more.

The Canadian Liver Foundation. Includes Liver Health, Liver Disease, Hepatitis C Treatment, Liver Transplants.

Cirrhosis of the Liver from National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health. (NIDDK, NIH).

Hepatocellular Carcinoma (Liver Cancer) by Tse-Ling Fong, MD, Medical Editor: Leslie J. Schoenfield, MD, PhD. Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, Treatment and Prevention, from MedicineNet.

Liver Diseases from MedlinePlus.

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