This is the liver, your largest and heaviest internal organ. Your liver lies under the bottom part of the ribcage on the right side of the body. It is shaped like a wedge and made up of two main rounded sections called lobes. What does the liver do? We can think of the liver as the body's processing plant.
After you've eaten something, the meal gets digested in your stomach and passes through the intestines. There, all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from your food are extracted and passed into the blood, which then makes an important stop at the liver. The liver processes the nutrients in the blood and changes them into forms that are easier for your body to use. The liver filters more than one litre of blood every minute! It also stores various vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A, vitamin B12 and iron, and releases them back into the blood when they are needed.
The liver doesn’t just process nutrients. It also deals with things your body doesn’t need – waste products – in the blood. These include harmful substances, called toxins, that are found in some of the foods we eat. If too many toxins build up in your body, you can become very sick. In the liver, there are special proteins called enzymes that break down all sorts of molecules, both nutrients and toxins, in various ways.
The liver is also responsible for producing an important digestive liquid called bile. Bile is a thick, yellow-green fluid made up of substances necessary to help break down fats from food and prepare them to be absorbed by, or removed from, the body. And the liver helps the body use another important component in food: carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in lots of foods, such as bread and fruit. During digestion, the body breaks down most carbohydrates into a type of sugar called glucose, which is the main source of fuel for our cells.
After a meal, the levels of glucose in your blood rise. The liver stores most of the excess glucose in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is a bit like a backup fuel. When you need an extra energy boost, or if you aren’t getting enough glucose from your food, the liver breaks down glycogen and releases glucose into the bloodstream. So your liver cleans your blood, helps with digestion, and stores energy.
All of this, however, is only a small part of what your liver does. The liver actually performs more than 500 functions! The liver also has a unique ability. If the liver is damaged, its cells can change and divide until it is restored back to its normal size. It is the only internal organ that can regenerate.
Even if up to 75% of the liver needs to be removed in surgery, it will still work and it can grow back to its normal size within a year. The liver is incredibly tough, but it is not invincible! Too much damage, over many years, from viruses, drugs, or alcohol, can reduce its ability to regenerate. Living a healthy lifestyle will help ensure your liver keeps working as it should.