Maroon and shaped like a boomerang, the liver is the second largest organ in the body (the skin always steals its glory). The reason it's so vital is that it serves as your body's border inspection station. Virtually every nutrient we consume, whether it has a valid passport or not, must pass through the liver so it can be transformed into a different biochemical form.
That transformation is what allows the nutrient to be used, transported to a different location in the body or stored as an extra inch of blubbery goop on your thighs.
Structurally speaking, here's what you need to know about the liver. It's located just below the right rib cage in the upper right side of the abdomen, above the pancreas and the small intestine. Your liver does three main things: helps digest stuff, make proteins and gets rid of bad stuff. All the blood that has visited your small intestines flows through your portal vein into your liver, so almost all of the nutrients you eat have to pass through the gauntlet of the liver before passing to the heart for generalized distribution. Why almost? There's a little absorption in your mouth and under your tongue, but almost means 99 percent for the typical person. Your liver decides what gets kept out, what gets patted down and inspected and what's allowed in to be distributed throughout your body.
Within the organ, there's a network of bile ducts. Bile—if you remember—is the greenish liquid produced in the liver that helps break down fats. The liver also uses bile to clear bilirubin from the blood. Biliwhat, you say? Bilirubin—it's a substance that comes from the breakup of hemoglobin in dead red blood cells. An increased level of bilirubin results in jaundice—a yellowing of the skin and all mucous membranes that includes the eyeballs, where the yellowing is usually detected earliest and most easily—a sign of many liver diseases.
The various functions of the liver are carried out by the liver cells, called hepatocytes, which act as stem cells and are responsible for the organ's unique ability to regenerate tissue. Your liver has three main jobs—breakdown, storage and detox
Nutrient Breakdown We all may know that skim milk is good for your bones, fish is good for your muscles and olive oil is good for your heart. But only a weird cartoonist thinks your bones actually bathe in milk or there's a blood vessel that transports fresh olive oil through a side door in the aortic chamber. Everything we eat and drink has to be broken down into different chemicals before it can get to work on helping (or, in the case of some foods and drinks, harming) your body. And that's one of the primary jobs of the liver.
Storage and Creation The liver, which makes protein and stores glucose, vitamin B12 and iron, helps get nutrients to your body by processing all foods—carbohydrates, protein and fat—into glucose that can be used throughout your body.
Glucose is a fancy name for a specific and common sugar...yup, everything is turned to sugar. Iron stores in the liver are great enough for most people that iron supplements are not usually needed, except in people with iron deficiency anemia, which is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide.
The liver also serves as the initial source of glucose when you rush the hot dog stand at halftime since the sugar in your blood provides only 10 minutes of energy. It then does double duty to break down the nitrates from that hot dog in the detox function. This, by the way, is the reason you don't burn fat immediately when you start exercising—your body is using the fuel that's stored as glucose in the liver first.
Most of what you put into your mouth isn't exactly pure. Plants are sprayed with chemicals, animals are injected with potent hormones and lots of foods are genetically engineered with so much stuff that they make Frankenstein look as natural as a puppy. What's that mean to us? For one thing, it means these toxins enter your body and can potentially destroy tissues or damage cells. It's the liver's job to cope with these toxic chemicals as they travel from the environment via food into your body, almost like a drug smuggler trying to make it past customs.
How does the liver do this? In your liver, there are rows of liver cells separated by space. Together, those spaces act like a sieve through which the blood flows. This sieve—like a customs agent finding out what illegal goods you're bringing across the border—removes toxic substances from the bloodstream. Those toxins can come in the form of everything from drugs and alcohol to chemicals and microorganisms.
The way it does this isn't with drug-sniffing dogs but with special Kupffer cells, which eat up and break down the toxins. In short, these cells disarm the toxins by converting a dangerous chemical to a less harmful one or by packaging them for easier disposal through our bile or urine. The latter approach reveals how the sly liver doesn't always have to fight its enemies head-on. Instead, it often uses a martial arts approach and paralyzes toxins by wrapping them in a water-soluble chemical so they land in your toilet rather than in a vital organ.
Downsides of Detox There are two main downsides. Some toxins cannot be packaged and hide in the fat part of the cells in your liver. Others create damaging free radicals, which cause harmful oxidation in your body. These free radicals take a toll on the liver. That's why your body's natural antioxidants are essential to your frontline defenses and why vitamins like folate, B12, B6 and vitamins C and E are so important for liver health.
Without these nutrients, the risk of failing to keep up our detox system shoots up and increases the possibility of allowing cancer-causing or atherosclerosis-enhancing inflammatory substances through the border patrol.
A variety of foods and nutrients can ensure that you increase your natural antioxidants and that the detox process is as smooth as a freshly laid marble floor.