12 Bilious Facts About the Liver
The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it’s the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don’t know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
You may not think much of your liver, hidden as it is deep inside your body, but your liver runs a whole lot of functions on your behalf to keep you healthy. Not only is it your largest internal organ, it is in charge of hundreds of different functions ranging from fighting infection, to manufacturing proteins and hormones, and helping clot your blood.
This reddish brown organ has two lobes, on the right and left, and it hangs out just on top of the gallbladder and next to parts of the pancreas and intestines. Your liver and these neighboring organs work as a team to digest and absorb your food. Its main job is to filter the blood that comes from the digestive tract, before it hits the rest of your body. The liver also detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs. As it does so, the liver secretes bile that ends up back in the intestines. The liver also makes proteins important for blood plasma and other functions. With some expert support, here are 12 facts about this underappreciated, hardworking organ.
1. IT HAS A LOT OF JOBS.
The liver is a very complicated organ with a role in nearly every bodily function, according to Nancy Reau, MD, the section chief of hepatology and associate director of organ transplantation at Rush University. Some of its jobs include making and storing energy; producing proteins vital for body function; processing drugs—prescriptions, OTCs, and “drugs of abuse”; and playing a vital role in immune function. “Although it’s hard to quantify all of the liver’s many roles, it is easy to see how sick a person becomes when the liver stops functioning,” says Reau, who is also co-chair of the American Liver Foundation’s medical advisory committee.
2. IT'S THE SECOND BIGGEST ORGAN NEXT TO SKIN.
Your liver weighs about the same as a small Chihuahua, often as much as three pounds [PDF], and is about the size of a football. It's located just beneath your rib cage on the right side of your body. If you could feel it, it would be rubbery to the touch.
3. IT HAS A DUAL IDENTITY.
Organs usually have a job specific to one region of the body. Glands are specialized types of organs that remove substances from the blood, alter or process them, then release them to other parts of the body or eliminate them. In that respect, the liver, which filters your body’s toxins (such as drugs and alcohol) and pushes them out of your body, is also a gland.
4. IT'S A BLOODY ORGAN.
At its fullest, the liver holds approximately 10 percent of the blood in your body, and pumps nearly 1.5 liters through itself per minute.
5. THE FIRST LIVER TRANSPLANT WAS NOT A GREAT SUCCESS.
Back in 1963, when Dr. Thomas E. Starzl performed the first human liver transplant at the University of Colorado Medical School, success was limited due to the wrong kinds of immunosuppressive drugs, with no patient living more than a few weeks. However, only four years later, the expansion of available immunosuppressive drugs made the first successful liver transplant possible.
6. IT'S THE ONLY ORGAN THAT CAN COMPLETELY REGENERATE.
Like Wolverine, the liver has the incredible ability to completely regrow, and it only needs as little as 25 percent of the original tissue to do so. “When a person donates more than half of their liver to someone who needs a transplant, the liver returns to its original size in nearly two weeks,” Reau tells Mental Floss. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Cell Physiology, evolutionary safeguards are responsible for this regenerative effect due to the numerous functions performed by the liver. “This process allows liver to recover lost mass without jeopardizing viability of the entire organism,” the authors write.
7. GOOD THING, BECAUSE YOUR BRAIN DEPENDS ON A HEALTHY LIVER.
The liver is a major regulator of plasma glucose and ammonia levels. If these get out of control they can contribute to a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy, and eventually coma. In other words, if you want your brain to function, you need a working liver.
8. LIVER CONDITIONS MAY BE SYMPTOMLESS.
Liver conditions are among those that pose a quandary for diagnosis. Because many liver conditions from hepatitis to cirrhosis may have no symptoms in the early stages. “You can even have a serious liver injury when your liver tests are all normal,” says Reau.
9. BEWARE YOUR NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS, TOO.
You may think if an herb or supplement has the word natural on the bottle that it’s safe. However, Reau cautions, “Herbs and all-natural therapy [are] processed by the liver in the same way that FDA-approved medications are processed.” It’s best to talk with your doctor if you’re uncertain. Although liver injury is uncommon for both prescribed and complementary therapies, being “all natural” does not eliminate all risk.
10. YOUR LIVER IS CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT …
Your body needs about one gram (.03 ounces) of liver for every kilogram (35 ounces) of your body weight in order to effectively do its job, Dr. Neil Mukherjee, a liver surgeon and fellow at Florida Hospital's Southeastern Center for Digestive Disorders & Pancreatic Cancer, tells Mental Floss.
11. … AND IT RAISES YOUR BILE.
The liver is a busy brew factory of bile, that yellow, green or brownish fluid you only ever see when you’re greeting the toilet with the stomach flu or a hangover. It produces about 700 to 1000 ml of the stuff every day. The bile gathers in little ducts and then moves on to the main bile duct, where it’s carried to the duodenum of the small intestine, either directly or via the gallbladder. While it may sound gross, bile is key to your body's ability to break down and absorb fats.
12. NO MATTER SHAPE OR SIZE, ALL VERTEBRATES HAVE ONE.
Every vertebrate—that is, any living being that has a spinal cord—has a liver, a necessary part of survival. And, these livers all have a similar structure, performing the same essential tasks in all these bodies.