Your Liver, Your Health: Part I – Liver Basics

Readers, join me in welcoming Hollis Pickett, who has researched and written an informative  eight-part series about the liver, exclusive for Doni Chamberlain

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 or call Toni (945-7853) or Hollis (524-5601).

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Leon Nelson says:

    Thanks for this very informative article, Hollis. I'll be curious to learn your thoughts about a vegan lifestyle as an adjunct to achieving and maintaining optimum liver health.

  2. Avatar Hollis Pickett says:

    Hi, Leon – My, what a small town this is! I remember contacting you years ago (I think through a contact at JET Tech) about photography…..;-) I see you're up at o-dark-thirty, just like me!

    I think a vegan diet and lifestyle are fine, as long as they are done correctly (so that you're receiving all your essential nutrients). A vegan diet/lifestyle is doable – I do strongly suggest doing some thorough research in advance, though. In fact, for any particular diet or lifestyle, there's no substitute for understanding what your body's needs are and how you can fill those needs through foods rather than supplements. For those who are not inclined to give up meat altogether, I advocate a sensible diet – heavy on whole foods – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, moderate amounts of dairy/meat, healthy fats, lots of water, low or lacking in processed foods…….and some exercise. Water is particularly important for liver health.

    Speaking of o-dark-thirty, I'll be able to post responses to everyone's comments in the early AM (like now), on my lunch hour and after work (up until about 8:45 when o-dark-thirty becomes go-to-bed-o'clock)…..not during the day when I actually have to do my job…..;-)

  3. Avatar JerryB6768 says:

    I don't have a specific liver problem, but take one triple antioxidant ThioGel-L capsule every day. Dr Gary Gordon (one of the founders of ACAM) also takes 1 capsule per day to protect liver function.

  4. Avatar Canda says:

    Reminds me of the old joke about the various essential organs and body parts having a discussion about which one was the most important. Of course in the joke the rectum wins saying, "If I shut down, you're all in trouble." Sorry, I just had to go there, but Hollis, I really enjoyed your article. Very informative, and I look forward to your future articles. With both my husband and I being on statin drugs for cholesterol, I'm always concerned about the old liver. Even with yearly blood tests, it's still something I think about. Welcome to Anewscafe, and I love your name. (same as my precious granddaughter)

  5. Avatar Hollis Pickett says:

    I always urge everyone to be careful with supplements. Most are not regulated or inspected – including lots of vitamins. I know many who swear by silymarin (milk thistle), products like ThioGel-L (with ALA (alpha-lipoic acid), a glutathione booster + other ingredients) and NAC (n-aceytlcysteine – used to detox the liver in Tylenol overdoses). Be especially cautious with supplements if you take any other medications – make sure your prescribing physician knows about everything you're taking so adverse drug interactions can be eliminated. This is especially critical if you're going into surgery. I know when I listen to all the disclaimers in the drug spots on TV, I don't want to take any of that stuff! Just about every single one has liver cautionaries. Here's a tidbit I gleaned online regarding food sources for glutatione and foods that enhance your body's ability to synthesize glutathione: Per serving, asparagus, avocadoes, asparagus, squash, okra, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, walnuts, garlic, and raw tomatoes have the highest glutathione content – also tumeric. Aside to Canda – hmmm-mm……good point! 😉

  6. Avatar Doreen Olson says:

    Dear Hollis,

    I am generally amused when someone says to be wary of supplements because they are not regulated or inspected. They may not be regulated or inspected the same way drugs are, but they don't need to be either. Drugs are toxic substances even if taken as directed. Supplements are beneficial substances if taken as directed. The last few times the FDA had a fit over a supplement, there were only a handful of adverse events triggering the FDA's ire. Take a look at the thousands (yes, thousands) of adverse events that are reported before the FDA rechecks the safety of any drug. Plus, there are several drugs on the market that deplete the body of essential nutrients. You don't hear much about needing to take up the slack on the depleted nutrients, either. You should be encouraging people to do their own research, take responsibility for their own health, and take supplements as needed if you want to be a health-promoter.

    • Avatar Chuck Tosh says:

      I agree with Hollis we need to be careful with supplements too.

      Most of us already know some drugs and supplements deplete the body of nutrients. We also know how the FDA operates too!

      Getting back on topic LASH is the only support group for hepatitis in Shasta County for HCV positive patients to get advice,support and educational information on hepatitis. Hollis Pickett and Toni Donovan from LASH run a support group that meets the 3rd Tuesday of each month.

  7. Hi Hollis,

    Thanks for the great information. I strongly believe in liver flushes as a great way to cleanse the liver. It is very easy to do. Anyone can do it at home. It's amazing the amount of sluge that accumalates in our liver, which is attributed to a vast variety of ailments.

  8. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    Great article Hollis. I look forward to your next article.

    Your advice is sound on suppliments: I think about all of the people who died or were disabled after taking the L-tryptophan suppliment that had been produced with genetically engineered bacteria instead of the traditional bacteria used in the fermentation process to create enzymes.

  9. Avatar Hollis Pickett says:

    I tell everyone I counsel that they should start a medical file on themselves, request results from all of their labs and procedures (ask your doctor to write "cc patient" on the sheet – some places have an extra, supplemental release form you have to sign – be sure to ask) and learn how to interpret them. I have a handout I use when I do a presentation that lists reading and internet resources (some of which will be discussed in these articles). I also agree that prescriptions drugs are not carefully regulated. In fact, there's a list out there on the internet of drugs that are regularly prescribed but not FDA approved. I think people are way too complacent about their health. I always tell people to take charge of their own health – no one will ever take better care of you than you can if you're willing to put in the time. When you're going to the doctor, take your list of questions – don't depend on the doctor to remember to ask you everything. You are your own best advocate.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

  10. Avatar pmarshall says:

    Thanks for the article, Hollis. Taking care of the liver has to be extremely important. Hope you will do an article on the kidney very soon. I didn't take care of a Bladder infection when I should have and that really came close to a big problem. Also, I have a friend who has been taking medication for her thyroid and finally read the paper that came with it and the side effects. She is very worried, and maybe she should be. Thanks again.