Have you wondered what your liver does? (Yes, beyond alcohol detoxification)
Or how this magnificent, regenerative miracle of an organ keeps you well?
Maybe you’re curious about the roles it plays in your health?
The liver is often overlooked. But it has important, wide-ranging (maybe surprising) roles. Let’s take a look at its 5 top functions...
The liver is an immune organ
Did you know that your liver is a crucial part of your immune system?
Most people don’t. But as the review article, Immune Responses in the Liver, said, the liver is positioned to identify “pathogens entering the body via the gut, [and] appears designed to detect, capture, and clear bacteria, viruses, and macromolecules.”
This power organ is embedded with the body’s biggest collection of phagocytic cells. Phagocytes are like the PacMen of physiology. They encircle and devour microorganisms, destroying them in the process. In this way, they can stop microorganisms — bacteria, viruses, “germs” — from causing disease.
The liver, then, is vital for immune system function. So vital some researchers have called it an immune organ.
The liver aids healthy blood sugar balance
When we think of blood sugar balance, the pancreas, insulin, and sweet foods often jump to mind. As they should. But maintaining a healthy blood sugar (glucose) level relies on the liver, too.
How does the liver affect blood glucose?
To function well, we need a tightly controlled amount of glucose in our blood; not too much, not too little. The liver acts as a buffer to enable maintenance of the optimal amount.
Between meals, blood glucose concentration sits between 80 to 90 mg/dl. When we eat, it rises, up to 120 to 140 mg/dl. This level is too high for the longer term. So, our body is programmed to restore balance.
The increase in insulin that accompanies a meal triggers the deposition of glucose into the liver, where it is stored as glycogen. This sugar storage re-establishes a normal blood sugar level within two hours of eating. On the flip side, during starvation the liver releases glucose to provide energy to the body.
As you can see, the liver plays an important role in healthy blood sugar balance.
The liver is responsible for protein synthesis
If you were unaware that the liver plays a role in protein synthesis, you’re not alone. In fact, it plays a number of roles.
Proteins are macromolecules produced by knitting together amino acids. Different proteins have different functions. The liver is responsible for the synthesis of various proteins, including albumin, transferrin, C-reactive protein (CRP), and fibrinogen.
Albumin is the most abundant protein in the plasma, the cell-less fluid of the blood. It is key for healthy oncotic pressure; the force that drags fluid across the capillaries. It’s one reason that blood can circulate around your body.
This protein also acts as a transporter — a ligand — that is responsible for moving various substances around the body.
A ligand is an ion or molecule that “sticks to” a metal. Some metals are super important for the function of the body, like iron. Yet if they were to travel unaccompanied, they would cause damage. A ligand “ties” up this metal, making it safe until it gets where it is needed.
Transferrin, as its name suggests, is responsible for transferring! In this case, transporting iron “through the blood to various tissues such as the liver, spleen, and bone marrow.”
When you get an infection or experience inflammation your liver increases its production of CRP. This inflammatory protein plays an important role in helping your body to fight and recover.
— the immune system to kick into gear
— damaged cells to die
— PacMen cells (the phagocytes) to spring into action
— the production of cytokines; chemicals that help the immune system to “talk”
While an elevated chronic level of CRP is harmful, in the short-term this spike can protect you from harm.
Have you cut yourself and noticed how incredibly quickly a clot starts to form? You can thank your liver and the fibrinogen it produces.
Fibrinogen, a soluble protein, is made by liver cells and then travels in blood. When needed, it is broken down to form fibrin. The compound that enables clots to form and bleeding to halt.
So, the liver is responsible for synthesizing proteins that are crucial to your health!
The liver stores nutrients
We, humans, must store nutrients for future use. When the body requires access to a specific nutrient — say vitamin B12 or the mineral, iron — it needs to be available. A ready-to-use supply is crucial for good health.
The liver acts as one of our storage houses. As mentioned above, sugar (in the form of glycogen) is stowed here. So are fats in the form of triglycerides and lipoproteins.
Then there’s the water soluble vitamins B12 and C, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, plus the minerals copper and iron.
The liver filters and nullifies toxins
Okay, so this is the best known of the liver’s functions. It is a filtering machine!
Substances arrive here to be altered, detoxified, and processed. They are then returned to the blood, or discharged to the bowel ready for a speedy exit. In this way the liver can expel the alcohol from your favorite beer or wine, remove medication by-products, and deal with other toxic compounds including pesticides, pollutants, and preservatives.
The liver takeaway
Your liver is more than just responsible for restoring health after a big night out. This incredible organ is an integral player in healthy immunity, blood sugar balance, protein synthesis, nutrient storage, and filtering and making toxins safe.
Because of the liver’s functions it has powerful regenerative abilities. However, don’t overestimate this organ. It deserves consideration, respect, and the healthy lifestyle needed to keep it in tip top condition. We promise, it will pay you back in spades!