Detoxes are huge right now - teas, diets, supplements, and even facial scrubs and bath salts are everywhere! While some focus on detoxing or cleansing different parts of the body, many seek to boost liver function. In light of the fact that the liver has over 300 vital functions, this spotlight on liver health makes sense (1, 2)! While some detoxification methods are much more effective and reliable than others (more info on this below), there is an underlying principle about the liver that rings true: if it isn’t working well, we won’t feel healthy.
Just what does the liver do, exactly?
Most people associate the liver with filtering out toxins and know that drinking too much alcohol can cause permanent liver damage. While these things are true, there is so much more that the liver does!
The liver is an organ located in the upper right portion of the abdomen (above the stomach, kidneys, and intestines), and has a characteristic triangular shape. It is made up of two main sections, called lobes, and is connected to the portal vein and hepatic artery. Oxygen and nutrient-rich blood come into the liver through these blood vessels, bringing blood from the heart and intestines that is full of all the components that we take in through our diet. The liver then works to filter that blood by (1, 2):
procuring available nutrients
filtering out poisons, toxins, bacteria, and other illness-inducing pathogens
metabolizing drugs and alcohol
breaking down fat
producing proteins and cholesterol
converting glucose into glycogen to balance blood sugar
processing hemoglobin and then storing the resulting iron
regulating blood clotting
producing bile, etc.
Once the liver properly filters the blood and removes or breaks down harmful substances, these by-products are expelled from the liver, transported either by bile or blood (2). Bile carries away toxins and other unusable or harmful substances, then brings them into the intestines, where they are eventually expelled through the feces. Any substance the blood carries away then enters the kidneys, is filtered again, and soon after leaves the body through urine (2). Without the liver, our bodies wouldn’t retain enough nutrients and would keep in far too many toxins, leading to any number of health issues.
Poor Liver Function Leads to Disease
When the liver isn’t functioning properly, it is unable to complete all of the processes mentioned above to the degree needed. This not only means that it expels improperly filtered blood and bile (affecting all the other organs and systems in the body), but that nutrients and macromolecules (such as fat) aren’t broken down as they should be (1, 2).