Understanding the Liver and Liver Disease made easier
General information of the liver:
The goal to better health is education. Unfortunately, not everyone explains things the same way. Some people make it really hard to understand and others can explain things in common terms. If you understand what is happening and you have the basic facts it makes it easier. So, here we go…a healthy liver has more jobs than any other organ in the body. The liver is the second largest organ in the body, your skin believe it or not is the largest. Yes, it’s true…your skin is an organ. The liver is about the size of a football, weighs in at about 2.5 to 4 pounds, is divided into two lobes, and is the second most complex organ, the brain being the most complex. The liver is also the only internal organ that can regenerate itself. Even if 75% of the liver is removed it will start regenerating immediately and return to a full sized liver after several months.
Normal function of a healthy liver:
The liver produces immune agents required to fight infections, filters our blood to remove harmful toxins, detoxifies our blood from harmful agents, produces blood clotting agents such as fibrinogen and prothrombin to keep us from bleeding to death, and blood thinning agents so we don’t produce blood clots (keeping both the clotting factors and thinning agents in balance), synthesizes proteins, helps to control blood pressure, converts proteins and carbohydrates into fats (which are stored until our bodies need it), and the liver produces blood protein and enzymes that aid in digesting food. When the liver breaks down the protein it produces urea made from ammonia and carbon dioxide. Urea is excreted from the kidneys as waste. Further; all of our blood is passed through the liver many times a day removing toxins and generally cleaning the blood by ridding it of harmful things. (One of the toxins most familiar to people is ammonia.)The liver also converts sugar into glycogen then stores it for when we need it for energy, produces and secretes bile then sends the bile to the gallbladder which releases the bile when we need it to aid in digesting fatty acids and regulates hormones. The liver also stores minerals, vitamins, and trace elements and sends it out to the blood stream when needed. These are just some of the functions the liver performs. So; as you can see the liver is a very busy and important organ and we cannot survive without it.
When the liver becomes damaged it is less functional and we have problems. As you can see from the list above a healthy liver does an awful lot to keep us well. When it is damaged it can no longer complete those tasks it was made to do. When liver disease develops, the liver's ability to perform its metabolic, detoxification and storage functions is impaired. Because the liver has such an important role to play when it becomes sick the entire body is affected. Another problem is we don’t always know that there is damage present until we start to have symptoms. Some of the symptoms are common to other illnesses or disease processes so the doctor has to test for what he/she thinks it could be. Sometimes when your doctor is testing you for something completely different they find out there is a problem with the liver. This may be found through blood tests, MRI’s, CAT scans, etc. They aren’t necessarily looking for liver problems in the beginning but inadvertently find them. When there are no symptoms of liver disease we most often continue doing whatever we were doing that caused the problem in the first place. Later, when the liver can no longer handle the strain the symptoms appear. When the liver can’t do its job for example we see the high ammonia levels which in turn cause the side effects associated with the increased ammonia in the body. That’s when we are tested, probed, biopsied, and told we actually have liver disease, the stage, and the cause. Also, keep in mind that there are over 100 types of liver disease that have been identified. Their common feature is that they all involve damage to the liver that disturbs its ability to function normally. Almost every other organ is affected when the liver malfunctions. Kidneys can’t throw off waste products in the urine resulting in high ammonia levels for one. Portal hypertension can develop because of the pressure of blood being forced through alternate channels and in turn ascites develops. Blood can no longer be purified so several blood related issues arise. The immune system becomes compromised and the person becomes more prone to infection. These are just a few of the things that can and do occur. As you can see it is like a vicious cycle. One thing affects the other and so on and so on.
Signs and Symptoms:
The signs and symptoms are listed in other educational threads. When signs and symptoms are listed understand that not everyone has every single symptom. The symptoms can range from itchy, dry skin to acute ascites, shortness of breath, and confusion. There are varied symptoms and no one set of rules on how or when they will appear. Lists have every possible symptom which usually starts with the most commonly seen. Symptoms typically appear in stages based on the severity of the disease process and are normally rated from mild to severe.
Treatment has been discussed in other educational threads. Again, there is no ONE treatment for liver disease. The doctor will decide what course of action he/she will follow. I would encourage anyone with liver issues to seek a hepatologist because they are the experts in liver disease.
Conclusion:The end result of a sick liver varies depending on the degree or stage of disease and/or damage. There is no ONE way to treat liver disease as noted above. Understanding the disease process based on what a healthy liver does versus what a sick liver can no longer do is essential. The causes may vary i.e.; alcoholism, hepatitis, injury, among others but the result is the same. There are many positive steps that can be taken by those affected including a healthy diet, absolutely no alcohol intake, no drug use unless prescribed by your doctor, positive attitude, educating oneself as to treatment, symptoms, and keeping the body hydrated to name a few. Most of us are familiar with the symptoms that are displayed when the liver becomes damaged but for many people it is all frightening and new. Hopefully after reading and understanding why and how a failing liver affects all those functions it finally makes sense. The key is NEVER GIVE UP………learn everything you can about the disease, follow doctor’s orders, and do EVERYTHING you can to improve your health. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and most importantly be proactive in your own care and treatment. The only way to accomplish this is to be educated. For us the days of sitting idly by and just following orders are over. Learn everything you can, ask questions, speak up, and be a part of your own care!