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What is the largest gland in the human body which also has over 500 vital functions? The answer is none other than the liver. Located on the upper right-hand portion of the abdomen, it sits below the diaphragm and above the stomach. With approximately 10cm in size, the liver is also the largest solid organ in the system, weighing between 1.4kg to 1.6kg – that is roughly the size of an average football. At any given time, the liver holds approximately 13 per cent (approximately 0.57 litres) of your total blood supply. Although the liver carries out hundreds of essential tasks, its most prominent roles are:
The liver is an amazing filter. If drugs, alcohol or any other foreign substances pass through your blood, it will ensure these external toxins are safely removed as they are not meant to be in our system. This applies to certain medications, food additives, preservatives, food colourings, sweeteners, and flavor enhancers. But how does your liver expel toxins? There are two ways: by using enzymes and oxygen to ‘burn’ fatty toxins and by combining toxins with amino acids so they can be flushed from the liver through bile or urine.
The liver also ensures that everything works cohesively. It aids with the metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and proteins. At the same time, it produces one of the most essential elements for digestion which is bile. Many waste products are expelled from the body by secretion into bile and elimination in feces.
Our blood glucose level is also controlled by the liver. Upon consumption of food, excess glucose (or sugar) can be stored in the liver as glycogen. If the body’s blood glucose levels start to deplete, this ‘storage’ can then be accessed, providing the body with a source of energy almost instantaneously. Aside from glycogen, the liver also stores lipid-soluble vitamins A,D,E,K and Vitamin B12.
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The liver is also the only organ that can regrow a damaged or missing part from the remaining tissue. According to the University of Iowa, in a case where up to 50 to 60 percent of the liver cells are killed within three to four days, the liver will repair completely after 30 days, provided no other complications arise.
Liver’s number-one enemy
While the liver is an absolute powerhouse, its effectiveness can still be affected by many factors, with alcohol coming in at the top of the list. Why? Simply because the body detects it as a foreign substance that needs to be flushed out.
How alcohol affects the liver
Since the liver acts as a filter for harmful substances, it would have to work extra hard to process alcoholic beverages. According to the British Liver Trust, it takes the body approximately an hour to process one alcoholic beverage and the time frame increases with each drink you take. “The higher someone’s blood alcohol content, the longer it takes to process alcohol.”
Therefore, having one too many drinks in one sitting is not recommended. Since the body can only process a certain amount of alcohol at a time, this would leave excess alcohol in the bloodstream, which will then make its way to the heart and the brain – otherwise known as intoxication.
Recommended dosage of alcohol
There is no ‘blanket amount’ of alcohol that is considered safe for consumption. It highly depends on a person’s gender and weight, said The University Health Network. Generally, the liver processes over 90 percent of consumed alcohol while the rest is expelled via urine, sweat and breathing. However, women’s bodies are able to absorb more alcohol from each drink thus they are at a bigger risk of liver damage.
However, multiple online reports suggest that adults should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. To illustrate further, a glass of champagne is equivalent to 1.5 units while a single shot of spirit and a pint of beer are considered 1 unit and 2.3 units respectively.
On top of that, you should also take three days off alcohol every week to give the liver a chance to catch up and heal itself. Pregnant ladies or those trying to conceive, on the other hand, should strictly refrain from drinking.
Alcohol-related liver disease
> Fatty liver
In the process of breaking the alcohol down, the liver can also generate harmful substances which can damage liver cells, trigger inflammation and weaken the body. The heavier the alcohol use, the more damaged your liver will be. Those with type 2 diabetes, obesity and higher level of fats in the blood are more likely at risk to develop this condition. This is also the earliest stage of alcoholic liver disease.
> Alcoholic hepatitis
This condition typically affects people who excessively consumed alcohol over a long period of time but it can also affect those who drink moderately. Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice), loss of appetite and nausea. Once diagnosed with alcoholic hepatitis, one should give up alcohol altogether. If not, one could risk a serious damage to the liver or even death.
This is the late stage of liver scarring caused by aforementioned liver conditions. The liver will try to repair itself each time it suffers damage but this would only result in the formation of scar tissue. The more traumatised your liver is, the harder it will be for it to serve its true purpose. If left untreated, advanced cirrhosis could be fatal. However, early diagnosis could prevent further damage to the liver.
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Sources: Medline Plus, World Health Organisation, WebMD, Medical News Today, Healthline, Mayo Clinic.