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The Digestive Process: The Liver and its Many Functions

The liver is the largest organ in your body. It weighs about 3 pounds and is about the size of a football. It performs many functions essential for good health and a long life.

What the liver does

Your liver works around the clock to keep you healthy. Among its most important jobs are:

  • Producing important substances. Your liver continually produces bile. This is a chemical that helps turn fats into energy that your body uses. Bile is necessary for the digestive process. Your liver also creates albumin. This is a blood protein that helps carry hormones, drugs, and fatty acids throughout your body. Your liver also creates most of the substances that help your blood clot after injury.

  • Processing bilirubin. The liver helps your body get rid of bilirubin. This happens from the breakdown of your red blood cells. Too much bilirubin in your body can cause jaundice. This is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. 

  • Removing waste products. When you take in a potentially toxic substance, like alcohol or medicine, your liver helps alter it and remove it from your body.

  • Controls immune responses. When bacteria, viruses, and other harmful organisms enter your body, your liver can find and destroy them. This is done by specialized cells in your liver.

  • Controlling glucose. The liver helps your body maintain a healthy level of blood sugar. Your liver supplies glucose to your blood when it’s needed. It also removes glucose from your blood when there’s too much.

Health problems affecting the liver

Many health problems can keep your liver from functioning properly. These include:

  • Cholestasis. This happens when the flow of bile from your liver is limited or blocked. Cholestasis can be caused by certain drugs, genetic factors, or even pregnancy. It can also happen from blockage from a tumor or a gallstone stuck in the drainage system.

  • Hepatitis. This is the name for any condition involving inflammation of your liver. There are many different types. Sometimes, excessive alcohol use, drugs, or toxins cause hepatitis. Hepatitis can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, and other life-threatening conditions.

  • Cirrhosis. This is a hardening of your liver, due to scar tissue. Heavy alcohol use and viruses like hepatitis are common causes of cirrhosis. Diabetes, immune problems, and genetic diseases can also cause the disease.

Keep your liver healthy

There are many steps you can take to keep your liver functioning well and reduce your risk for liver disease:

  • Stay up-to-date on your shots.

  • Wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom, touching pets, before eating.

  • Limit your exposure to toxins, such as cleaning supplies, chemicals, and tobacco products.

  • Keep your cholesterol within a normal range.

  • If you have diabetes, keep your sugars in a normal range.

  • Do not share needles, razors, toothbrushes, or other personal items.

  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products.

  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight.

  • Limit how much alcohol you drink.

  • Be careful about using medicine. Always talk with your healthcare provider about the medicines you’re taking including over-the-counter products, such as pain relievers.

  • Practice safe sex to reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis, or other health problems.

Online Medical Reviewer: Lehrer, Jenifer, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Taylor, Wanda, RN, Ph.D.
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2016
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.