Your Liver and How it Works
(Reproducted with permission courtesy of the Hepatitis B Foundation)
What does my liver look like?
The liver is the largest organ inside the body. In an adult it is about the size of a football and weighs close to three pounds. It is located behind the ribs in the upper right-hand portion of the abdomen. Shaped like a triangle, the liver is dark reddish-brown and consists of two main lobes. There are 300 billion cells in the liver that are connected by a well-organised system of bile ducts and blood vessels called the biliary system.
How important is my liver?
The liver is such an important organ that we can only survive one or two days if it shuts down—if the liver fails, your body will fail too. Fortunately, the liver can function even when 75% of it is diseased or removed. This is because it has the amazing ability to create new liver tissue (i.e. it can regenerate itself) from healthy liver cells that still exist.
What does my liver do?
If your body was an automobile, your liver would be considered the engine. It does hundreds of vital things to make sure everything runs smoothly. Some of the most important functions of the liver include:
- Stores vitamins, sugar and iron to help give your body energy.
- Controls the production and removal of cholesterol.
- Clears the body of waste products, drugs and other poisonous substances.
- Makes clotting factors to stop excessive bleeding.
- Produces immune factors and removes bacteria from the bloodstream to combat infection.
- Releases a substance called “bile” to help digest food and absorb important nutrients.
How can hepatitis B and C viruses damage the liver?
A healthy liver is soft and flexible. With chronic hepatitis B or C infection, the liver is constantly under attack and it can become hardened over time. Some of the changes and liver damage that can occur are described below:
Fibrosis: After becoming inflamed, the liver tries to repair itself by forming tiny scars. This scarring, called “fibrosis”, makes it difficult for the liver to do its job. As damage continues, many scars form and begin to join together, leading to the next stage, cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis: With chronic hepatitis B infection, large areas of the liver can become permanently scarred and nodules may form. Blood cannot flow freely through scarred liver tissue. This causes the liver to shrink and become hard, and can lead to serious bleeding from the gut.
Liver Failure: If cirrhosis becomes very severe, liver failure can occur. This means the liver is unable to filter wastes, toxins and drugs from the blood. It can no longer produce the clotting factors necessary to stop bleeding.
Liver Cancer: Cirrhosis can sometimes set the stage for liver cancer. One explanation for this is that damage to liver cells may alter the genes inside the cells in such a way that they become cancerous. People living with chronic hepatitis B infection are at higher risk for developing liver cancer and must be monitored carefully.
Where can I go for further information and support?
For more information contact us.