What would you say If I asked you, “What’s the most important organ in your body?”
You might say your heart, or your command-and-control center (brain). I must concede – if your heart stops pumping, you definitely are in a lot of trouble. What about your skin, the largest “organ”, and one of your first lines of defense against invaders? Or one of your other main defenses, your respiratory mucous membranes – all 900 square feet of them.
Well, if your liver is not functioning correctly, none of that other stuff works right either. Your liver is located in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen – it’s what your doctor is palpating when he presses right below your rib cage and asks you to take a deep breath. Your liver performs over 500 different functions for your body, and they are all critical to your well-being.
Some of the liver’s biggest jobs: “cleaning” your blood – breaking down toxins into materials that can be safely disposed of via your intestines or kidneys; facilitating digestion by manufacturing digestive enzymes and bile and breaking down fats; metabolizing simple carbohydrates and proteins; manufacturing important elements of your immune system; producing sex hormones; synthesis and release of blood clotting factors; synthesis of albumin (maintains proper bodily fluid balances) – the list goes on and on.
An incredible three liters of blood pass through the liver every minute – as does everything in your blood – everything ingested, inhaled or topically applied that gets into the bloodstream. Your liver is so important it is the only organ in your body that can completely regenerate from a relatively small amount of healthy liver tissue. If you are otherwise healthy, you can remove half to two-thirds of your liver and in less than two months, your liver will be full-sized and functioning normally, good as new.
Sounds great, right? Well, there is a problem with the liver – it’s way too much like my husband; quiet and well-behaved, never whines or complains.
OK, that was tongue-in-cheek, but that actually is the nature of the liver. Why is that a problem? Because when the liver sustains damage from alcohol, diseases or hereditary conditions, it will often not give any indication that failure is approaching until it’s almost ready to give up completely.
One of the main indicators of liver disease is fatigue. Not just, “Boy, am I ever pooped!”, but deep, profound, can’t-drag-yourself-up-off-the-couch fatigue. That pronounced fatigue sets in gradually – it can take years – and you can end up chasing that and other symptoms instead of the real problem. As you approach serious liver damage, you may just feel tired, out of sorts, lacking in appetite, mildly depressed, itchy-skinned.
A few years ago, we had a temporary fill-in person at our office. She started work on a Monday and went home about 2 P.M. on Thursday saying she didn’t feel very well. Her husband called Friday morning to say she felt better but still not great and she wouldn’t be in. By Friday at 4 P.M. she was in the ER, at 7 P.M. she was on an emergency Angel Flight to San Francisco – she died on the way of liver failure. She had worked almost all week . Remember what she said when she left the office? She “didn’t feel very well” – right up to the moment when her liver just quit.
My husband developed cirrhosis of the liver from two causative factors – one acquired, one inherited. How did he feel as his liver deteriorated? Tired. Pretty darn tired, but we figured it was a combination of encroaching old-age (sorry, honey!), not sleeping very well and starting a new business that, like many, was long on enthusiasm, short on capital and generated plenty of stress. So we slapped him around a little and told him to suck it up – we didn’t know that he couldn’t. By the time he was diagnosed, he was already cirrhotic.
Because your liver is so important to your health and because the signs and symptoms of liver disease can be so subtle, let’s spend some time together going over a few of the more common causes of liver disease and failure. You never know……what you learn here may save a life and it may even be your own.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll outline warning signs of a liver in trouble.
Hollis Pickett, in partnership with Toni Donovan, runs a Redding area non-profit – Local Area Support For Hepatitis, also known as LASH. Hollis has been involved with hepatitis advocacy since 2002 and is a steering committee member with CalHEP Alliance. She has been the bookkeeper and office manager for the law firm of Carr, Kennedy, Peterson & Frost for the past 25 years. Toni has just completed a Masters in Public Health (MPH) and is currently employed by Planned Parenthood and Acaria Health (a specialty pharmacy). LASH provides community education and patient/caregiver support for those infected with chronic viral hepatitis. A support group meets once a month for patients and their families. LASH offers group presentations, individual counseling and clinical education for patients entering treatment. You can contact them via e-mail at email@example.com or call Toni (945-7853) or Hollis (524-5601).