Take care of your liver and live a longer life

What does nutrition have to do with your liver? Nutrition and the liver are interrelated in many ways. Some functions are well understood; others are not. Since everything we eat, breathe and absorb through our skin must be refined and detoxified by the liver, special attention to nutrition and diet can help keep the liver healthy. In a number of different kinds of liver disease, nutrition takes on considerably more importance.

Why is the liver important?
The liver is the largest organ in the body and it plays a vital role, performing many complex functions which are essential for life. Your liver serves as your body's internal chemical power plant. While there are still many things we do not understand about the liver, we do know that it is impossible to live without it, and the health of the liver is a major factor in the quality of one's life.

Some important functions of the liver are:

• Convert the food we eat into stored energy, and chemicals necessary for life and growth;

• Act as a filter to remove alcohol and toxic substances from the blood and convert them to substances that can be excreted from the body;

• Process drugs and medications absorbed from the digestive system, enabling the body to use them effectively and ultimately dispose of them;

• Manufacture and export important body chemicals used by the body. One of these is bile, a greenish-yellow substance essential for the digestion of fats in the small intestine.

Why is the liver so important in nutrition?
85-90% of the blood that leaves the stomach and intestines carries important nutrients to the liver where they are converted into substances the body can use.

The liver performs many unique and important metabolic tasks as it processes carbohydrates, proteins, fats and minerals to be used in maintaining normal body functions.

Carbohydrates, or sugars, are stored as glycogen in the liver and are released as energy between meals or when the body's energy demands are high. In this way, the liver helps to regulate the blood sugar level, and to prevent a condition called hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. This enables us to keep an even level of energy throughout the day. Without this balance, we would need to eat constantly to keep up our energy.

Proteins reach the liver in their simpler form called amino acids. Once in the liver, they are either released to the muscles as energy, stored for later use, or converted to urea for excretion in the urine. Certain proteins are converted into ammonia, a toxic metabolic product, by bacteria in the intestine or during the breakdown of body protein. The ammonia must be broken down by the liver and made into urea which is then excreted by the kidneys. The liver also has the unique ability to convert certain amino acids into sugar for quick energy.

Fats cannot be digested without bile, which is made in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and released as needed into the small intestine. Bile (specific bile "acids"), acts somewhat like a detergent, breaking apart the fat into tiny droplets so that it can be acted upon by intestinal enzymes and absorbed. Bile is also essential for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, the fat soluble vitamins. After digestion, bile acids are reabsorbed by the intestine, returned to the liver, and recycled as bile once again.

Can poor nutrition cause liver disease?
There are many kinds of liver disease, and the causes of most of them are not known. Poor nutrition is not generally a cause, with the exception of alcoholic liver disease and liver disease found among starving populations. It is much more likely that poor nutrition is the result of chronic liver disease, and not the cause.

On the other hand, good nutrition - a balanced diet with adequate calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates - can actually help the damaged liver to regenerate new liver cells. In fact, in some liver diseases, nutrition becomes an essential form of treatment.

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