Alcohol Vs. Liver

The liver is our largest internal organ and it has 500 different roles, including the breakdown of food into energy and helping the body get rid of waste products and fight infections – particularly in the bowel. And yet, when your liver is damaged, you generally won’t know about it – until things get serious.

Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing liver disease and cause irreparable damage to this very important part of your body. In fact, alcohol is a major cause of the 25% increase in deaths from liver disease in England over the last decade (from 9,231 in 2001 to 11,575 in 2009).

Overall, alcohol-related liver disease accounts for well over a third (37%) of liver disease deaths. And figures show victims of liver disease are getting younger – more than one in 10 of deaths of people in their 40s are from liver disease, most of them from alcochol-related liver disease.

The types of liver disease

There are many types of liver disease, three of the most common are:

1. Alcohol-related fatty liver-disease
Where the liver is damaged after alcohol abuse.

2. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
A build-up of fat within liver in liver cells.

3. Viral (Hepatitis)
An inflammation (swelling) of the liver caused by a viral infection.

4. Autoimmune (chronic hepatitis)
Severe form of hepatitis where blood cells attack and destroy liver cells.

All types of liver disease above can cause damage to the liver. The advice on this page is specific to alcohol-related liver disease.

Alcohol-related liver disease can be prevented if you understand the impact excessive alcohol drinking can have on your liver and take-steps to control the amount you drink. For more information on how alcohol affects your health, read about the short and long-term effects of alcohol in your body.

How does alocohol impact the liver?

Liver disease is the term used to describe damage to the liver. There are two types of liver disease:

  • Acute is when liver problems develop over a few months
  • Chronic is damage over a number of years

There are lots of different causes of liver disease, including drinking alcohol to excess which causes ‘alcoholic liver disease’. Scientists are not sure exactly why drinking too much alcohol can damage your liver but the reasons include:

  1. Oxidative stress. When our liver tries to break down alcohol, the resulting chemical reaction can damage its cells. This damage can lead to inflammation and scarring as the liver tries to repair itself.
  2. Toxins in gut bacteria. Alcohol can damage our intestine which lets toxins from our gut bacteria get into the liver. These toxins can also lead to inflammation and scarring.

 Use our simple Unit Calculator to find out exactly how much you’re drinking

Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing liver disease

Evidence about how much and how often you need to drink to increase your chances of developing liver disease is unclear. But all the research shows that the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to develop liver disease.

Evidence suggests that other factors that increase your risk of developing liver disease include:

  • Being dependent on alcohol  around seven in 10 people with alcoholic liver disease have an alcohol dependency problem.
  • Being overweight –excess weight can exacerbate many of the mechanisms of liver damage caused by excessive drinking

Excessive drinking can make your liver get fat

Drink more than eight units a day (four pints of 4% lager) if you’re a man and over five units a day (a couple of 175ml glasses of wine) if you’re a woman, for two or three weeks and you’re likely to develop something called ‘fatty liver’.

This is when the liver turns glucose into fat, which it sends round the body to store for use when we need it. Alcohol affects the way the liver handles fat so your liver cells get stuffed full of it.

If this happens, you may feel a vague discomfort in your abdomen because your liver is swollen. You might also feel sick and lose your appetite. A blood test may be able to show if you have fatty liver.

The good news: If you stop drinking for two weeks and do not exceed the low risk alcohol unit guidelines your liver should start shedding the excess fat. But if you don’t change your drinking pattern, that fatty liver is the first stage of developing liver disease.

Stopping drinking will help reduce damage and the progression of alcohol-related liver disease.

Identifying liver disease: the symptoms

People can spend 20 years damaging their liver and not feel any of the effects this is doing to them.

Early symptoms of liver disease can include:

  • Abdominal pains
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Later stage liver damage symptoms are more serious – and you’ll know about them.

They can include:

  • Bleeding in the gut
  • Easy bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice (yellow skin)
  • Increased sensitivity to alcohol and drugs, both medical and recreational (because the liver cannot process them
  • Itching
  • Liver cancer
  • Swelling of the legs ankles, or abdomen
  • Vomiting blood
  • Weakness, loss of appetite

When you develop cirrhosis, cutting out alcohol is essential to prevent you from dying from liver failure which is when your liver stops working completely. In the most serious cases of cirrhosis, you will only be considered for a liver transplant if you do not drink alcohol for at least three months

If you start soon enough, you can reverse problems with your liver caused by alcohol

Drinking within the government’s low-risk alcohol unit guidelines (drinking no more 14 units a week for both men and women) and spreading those units over three days or more will help keep your risk of developing liver disease low. Reducing the amount you drink can help reverse damage of  the earlier stage alcohol-related liver disease.

Once cirrhosis develops, prognosis partly depends on whether or not you continue drinking. Those who continue to drink will feel sicker and die sooner. Even for those with symptoms, stopping drinking has a beneficial effect – it is never “too late” to stop drinking – even with cirrhosis.

Staying in control

You can keep your risk low by staying within the government’s recommended low risk guidance. Here are three ways you can cut back:

  1. Spread your alcohol-intake out over three days or more. . If you want to cut down, a great way is to spread your drinking out over the  days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice. 
  2. Eat well.A healthy meal before you start drinking, and low-fat, low-salt snacks between drinks can help to slow down the absorption of alcohol. Good nutrition can help to support your liver to function and plays a crucial role in your health9.
  3. Keep track of what you’re drinking.Your liver can’t tell you if you’re drinking too much, but the MyDrinkaware drink tracking tool can. It can even help you cut down.

Natural Ways to Treat Liver Disease

Liver disease – Dr. Axe
If the fat in your liver makes up 5–10 percent of the organ’s weight, then you are diagnosed with fatty liver disease. There are two main types of fatty liver disease, alcoholic liver disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is another rare condition that happens when fat builds up in the liver of pregnant women.

One of the hardest-working organs in the body, the liver works tirelessly to detoxify our blood, to produce the bile needed to digest fat, to break down hormones, and to store essential vitamins, minerals and iron. This is why it’s so important to take care of our livers or practice a liver cleanse — as when the liver is not functioning optimally, we cannot digest our food properly, especially fats.

It’s the liver’s responsibility to process nutrients absorbed by the intestines so they’re more efficiently absorbed. The liver also regulates blood composition to balance protein, fat and sugar. Finally, it removes toxins from the blood, and breaks down both alcohol and medications.

liver disease graphic

For people with fatty liver disease, the handling of fat by liver cells is disturbed. Increased amounts of fat are removed from the blood and produced by liver cells, and not enough is disposed of or exported by the cells. As a result of this, fat accumulates in the liver. There is an imbalance between the uptake of fat and its oxidation and export.

Today, we’re faced with so many environmental toxins occurring in our homes, places of work and in our food supply, so it’s essential for our general health and well-being to keep our livers functioning properly.

Types of Fatty Liver Disease

Alcoholic liver disease is the result of drinking alcohol excessively. This condition is in direct correlation to the amount of alcohol you drink; your blood is not able to break down the alcohol properly, and it affects your liver. This can also be a hereditary condition because genes that are passed down from your parents may increase your chances of becoming an alcoholic.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is considered the most common liver disorder in the Western world. It’s recognized as one of the most common forms of chronic liver disease and is among the most common forms of chronic liver disease across the globe. NAFLD is most likely to happen in people who are overweight and middle-aged, but recently there are more and more cases of children with NAFLD because it is a result of the standard American diet. People with NAFLD often have high cholesterol and diabetes as well. Typically, this condition is linked to malnutrition, medications, inherited liver disease, fast weight loss and too much bacteria in the small intestine. There are three types of NAFLD:

Nonalcoholic fatty liver is when fat builds up in the liver, but it won’t necessarily hurt you. This means that it’s causing excess liver fat, but there are no complications, which is common. According to a study conducted at the University of Sydney at Westmead Hospital in Australia, NAFLD is present in 17 percent to 33 percent of Americans. This growing percentage parallels the frequency of obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis happens to a small number of people with fatty liver. The fat causes inflammation in the liver, and this can impair the liver’s ability to function. This can also lead to cirrhosis, or the scarring of the liver.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease-associated cirrhosis is when liver inflammation leads to the scarring of the liver tissue, making the liver heavier than any other solid organ in the body. This scarring can become so severe that the liver no longer functions, leading to liver failure.

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy is a serious condition where fat builds in the liver; it can be dangerous to the baby and mother, especially if it leads to liver or kidney failure. This condition can also be caused by a serious infection or excessive bleeding. When a mother is diagnosed with fatty liver disease during pregnancy, the baby is typically delivered right away, and within a few weeks the mother’s liver will return to normal (sometime this requires time in intensive care).

Liver Disease Symptoms

There are often no symptoms of fatty liver disease, so you may live with the condition and not realize it. Over time, sometimes it can take years or even decades, some signs may begin to surface. These symptoms include:

feeling tired
fatigue
weight loss
loss of appetite
weakness
nausea
confusion
trouble concentrating
pain in the center or right upper part of belly
enlarged liver
bloating and gas
dark urine
bruising easily
excessive sweat
constipation
dry and dark patches on neck and under arms

Sometimes, fatty liver disease leads to cirrhosis, a disease that occurs when the liver weighs about three pounds and is the largest solid organ in the body. This is the most dangerous and life-threatening type of fatty liver disease. Over time, healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, which prevents the liver from functioning properly. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs and naturally produced toxins, as well as the production of proteins and other substances made by the liver. Symptoms of cirrhosis include the buildup of fluid in the body, muscle weakness, internal bleeding, yellowing of the skin and eyes, and liver failure.

Commonly, fatty liver disease isn’t noticed until a checkup with your doctor. There are medical tests and devices that can be used to detect the formation of NAFLD. A doctor may notice that a patient’s liver is larger than usual. The disease can also be detected with a blood test; a high number of certain enzymes will suggest that you have fatty liver disease. An ultrasound can be used to get a closer look at your liver, and a biopsy would be able to diagnose NAFLD. Your doctor would take out a tiny piece of liver with a needle and test it for inflammation, signs of fat or damaged liver cells.

If you think you are at risk of getting NAFLD or you notice some of these symptoms, ask your doctor for these tests.

Root Causes & Risk Factors of Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease occurs when the liver has trouble breaking down fats, causing fat to build up in the liver tissue. Some root causes of this disease include:

Medications
Viral hepatitis
Autoimmune or inherited liver disease
Fast weight loss
Malnutrition

There are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of having NAFLD; they include:

Obesity
Gastric bypass surgery
High cholesterol
High levels of triglycerides in the blood
Type 2 diabetes
Metabolic syndrome
Sleep apnea
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
Underactive pituitary gland (hypopituitarism)

According to a study conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, obesity is associated with an increased risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. A major feature of NAFLD, called steatosis, occurs when the rate of hepatic fatty acid uptake from plasma and fatty acid synthesis is greater than the rate of fatty acid oxidation and export. This metabolic imbalance is a significant factor responsible for the formation of NAFLD.

A 2006 review published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology states that NAFLD is extremely common among patients undergoing bariatric surgery, ranging from 84 percent to 96 percent. The review also noted that the disease seems to be most common among men, and it increases with older age and after menopause in women.

Liver disease guide – Dr. Axe

Foods that Make Fatty Liver Disease Worse

Alcohol
If you have fatty liver disease, and you are a heavy drinker, quitting is the most important thing to do first. Alcohol is the culprit; it’s what caused the liver disease because your liver cannot break it down quick enough for your body. According to a review conducted at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York, fatty liver disease is common among alcoholics not only due to malnutrition, but also because of toxicity and inflammation. Even if you have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, it’s best to eliminate alcohol from your diet.

High-Carbohydrate Foods
Foods such as bread, rice, grits and corn should be avoided. All white bread and carbs should be eliminated or reduced from your diet, and some whole grain products aren’t great either. When we consume too many refined carbohydrates, insulin levels spike, and insulin sensitivity is a major factor in the cause of liver disease. Read the label on whole grain packages, and avoid buying anything that is labeled “enriched.”

If you want to have some bread here and there, buy fresh bread that is made in the bakery or health food store — you can also try breads from gluten-free flours, like Ezekiel bread, or these sandwich substitutes. If you are going for rice, choose brown rice.

Sugary Drinks
Sports drinks, soda, energy drinks and juice are full of sugar and artificial sweeteners. This sugar that enters your body causes fatty liver disease. The average 12-ounce can of soda, for example, has 10 teaspoons of sugar! Your body isn’t able to break down the amount of sugar that most Americans consume every day, and it’s impacting the liver, big time.

According to a study conducted at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, sugars, particularly fructose, are suspected to contribute to the development of NAFLD and its progression. There have been substantial links between increased fructose consumption and obesity, dyslipidemia and insulin resistance.

Processed Foods
Hydrogenated oils, refined sugar, convenience foods and lunch meats are notoriously toxic to your system. Nitrates and nitrites, for example, are commonly found in processed foods and lunch meat, and they have been linked to serious conditions, including cancer. The high fructose corn syrup found in our processed foods is the single biggest cause of fatty liver; you must stay away from these products in order to heal liver disease.

Foods that Improve Fatty Liver Disease

Raw Vegetables
A review published in the European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry states that natural products that are found in vegetables, as well as fruits, plant extracts and herbs, have been traditionally used for treating liver diseases. It’s so important to add vegetables to your everyday diet.

An easy way to do this is by juicing vegetables for near-perfect health. With impaired liver function, juicing vegetables has the added benefit of making the vegetables easier to digest and more readily available for absorption. Vegetables ideal for a liver detox include kale, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, beets and celery; try something like beetroot juice to start.

Ginger Root
High-fiber foods help support a healthy digestive tract, hastening the elimination of toxins in the body. For example, ginger root benefits the digestive system. Make ginger tea by boiling ginger slices in green tea or water. You can also add ginger to a stir-fry, salad or smoothie.

Sweet Potatoes
Because of there potassium content, sweet potatoes are beneficial because they help cleanse the liver. One sweet potato contains nearly 700 milligrams of potassium! It’s also rich with vitamins B6, C, D, magnesium and iron. Sweet potatoes are easy to eat because they’re naturally sweet, and the sugars are slowly released into the bloodstream through the liver, so it won’t cause a spike in blood sugar. There are a ton of healthy sweet potato recipes that you can try at home today.

Bananas
Containing 470 milligrams of potassium, banana nutrition is also great for cleansing the liver and overcoming low potassium levels; plus, bananas assist in digestion and help release toxins and heavy metals from the body.

Dandelion Root
The vitamins and nutrients present in dandelions help cleanse our livers and keep them working properly. Dandelions also aid our digestive system by maintaining the proper flow of bile. They’re natural diuretics and allow the liver to eliminate toxins quickly. Dandelion tea or stems are also high in vitamin C, which helps with mineral absorption, reduces inflammation and prevents the development of disease.

Milk Thistle
As a liver support and aid, milk thistle is a powerful detoxifier. It helps rebuild liver cells while removing toxins from the body that are processed through the liver. According to a study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, milk thistle has the power to improve mortality in patients with liver failure; it’s able to naturally reverse the harmful effects of alcohol consumption, pesticides in our food supply, heavy metals in our water supply, pollution in the air that we breathe in and even poisons.

According to a 2010 study, milk thistle benefits help treat alcoholic liver disease, acute and chronic viral hepatitis, and toxin-induced liver diseases.

Liver
Liver from young, healthy, grass-fed cattle or chicken liver pate is full of nutrients and vitamins. It’s rich with vitamins A and B, folic acid, choline, iron, copper, zinc, chromium, and CoQ10; in fact, it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can eat. If you rather not animal liver, take liver supplements that guarantee no hormones, pesticides or antibiotics were used in the feeding and care of the cattle.

Best Supplements & Natural Remedies for Liver Disease

Vitamin E
Research done at the University of Florida suggests that lifestyle changes, along with vitamin E supplements, are helpful for people with liver damage caused by nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Vitamin E benefits include its role as a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation; it also increases immunity and helps the body fight serious conditions.

Turmeric
By adding beneficial turmeric to your diet or taking a supplement every day, you reduce inflammation in the body and treat digestive conditions. If using a supplement, take 450 milligrams of curcumin capsules each day.

Black Seed Oil
This amazing oil can greatly speed the healing process for people with fatty liver disease. A study published in the European Review for Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences measured black seed oil’s ability to inhibit liver oxidative stress markers. The results of the study indicated that black seed oil benefits liver disease patients because it’s able to reduce the complications and progression of fatty liver disease.

The best thing you can do to treat fatty liver disease is maintain a healthy diet. Many people with fatty liver disease are overweight and malnourished. A healthy diet that provides the vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to function is very important. The number one treatment of fatty liver disease is weight loss and a healthy diet. It’s essential that you eat a well-balanced diet that is predominately plant-based; plus, you should exercise regularly — shoot for doing physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, even if it’s taking a walk.

Liver Disease Treatment Recipes

Vegetable juices and detox recipes are a great way to cleanse the liver and reduce inflammation. My Heavy Metal Detox is a great way to start. The 23 environmental metals that are considered “heavy metals” can lead to liver damage, among other dangerous conditions. By ridding the body of these toxic metals, you allow your organs to heal and function properly.

If you’re looking to add turmeric into your diet to reduce swelling and treat the digestive system, try my Turmeric Tea Recipe; it’s creamy, sweet and highly anti-inflammatory.

Cilantro and ginger are both great for detoxifying the liver and supporting the immune and digestive systems. Try my Cilantro Ginger Smoothie Recipe to remove toxins from the liver and treat fatty liver disease.

The Liver: A ‘Blob’ That Runs the Body

The underrated, unloved liver performs more than 300 vital functions. No wonder the ancients believed it to be the home of the human soul.

To the Mesopotamians, the liver was the body’s premier organ, the seat of the human soul and emotions. The ancient Greeks linked the liver to pleasure: The words hepatic and hedonic are thought to share the same root.

The Elizabethans referred to their monarch not as the head of state but as its liver, and woe to any people saddled with a lily-livered leader, whose bloodless cowardice would surely prove their undoing.

Yet even the most ardent liverati of history may have underestimated the scope and complexity of the organ. Its powers are so profound that the old toss-away line, “What am I, chopped liver?” can be seen as a kind of humblebrag.

After all, a healthy liver is the one organ in the adult body that, if chopped down to a fraction of its initial size, will rapidly regenerate and perform as if brand-new. Which is a lucky thing, for the liver’s to-do list is second only to that of the brain and numbers well over 300 items, including systematically reworking the food we eat into usable building blocks for our cells; neutralizing the many potentially harmful substances that we incidentally or deliberately ingest; generating a vast pharmacopoeia of hormones, enzymes, clotting factors and immune molecules; controlling blood chemistry; and really, we’re just getting started.

“We have mechanical ventilators to breathe for you if your lungs fail, dialysis machines if your kidneys fail, and the heart is mostly just a pump, so we have an artificial heart,” said Dr. Anna Lok, president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and director of clinical hepatology at the University of Michigan.

“But if your liver fails, there’s no machine to replace all its different functions, and the best you can hope for is a transplant.”

And while scientists admit it hardly seems possible, the closer they look, the longer the liver’s inventory of talents and tasks becomes.

In one recent study, researchers were astonished to discover that the liver grows and shrinks by up to 40 percent every 24 hours, while the organs around it barely budge.

Others have found that signals from the liver may help dictate our dietary choices, particularly our cravings for sweets, like a ripe peach or a tall glass of Newman’s Own Virgin Limeade — which our local supermarket chain has, to our personal devastation, suddenly stopped selling, so please, liver, get a grip.

Scientists have also discovered that hepatocytes, the metabolically active cells that constitute 80 percent of the liver, possess traits not seen in any other normal cells of the body. For example, whereas most cells have two sets of chromosomes — two sets of genetic instructions on how a cell should behave — hepatocytes can enfold and deftly manipulate up to eight sets of chromosomes, and all without falling apart or turning cancerous.

That sort of composed chromosomal excess, said Dr. Markus Grompe, who studies the phenomenon at Oregon Health and Science University, is “superunique,” and most likely helps account for the liver’s regenerative prowess.

Scientists hope that the new insights into liver development and performance will yield novel therapies for the more than 100 disorders that afflict the organ, many of which are on the rise worldwide, in concert with soaring rates of obesity and diabetes.

“It’s a funny thing,” said Valerie Gouon-Evans, a liver specialist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “The liver is not a very sexy organ. It doesn’t look important. It just looks like a big blob.

“But it is quietly vital, the control tower of the body,” and the hepatocytes that it is composed of “are astonishing.”

The liver is our largest internal organ, weighing three and a half-pounds and measuring six inches long. The reddish-brown mass of four unevenly sized lobes sprawls like a beached sea lion across the upper right side of the abdominal cavity, beneath the diaphragm and atop the stomach.

The organ is always flush with blood, holding about 13 percent of the body’s supply at any given time. Many of the liver’s unusual features are linked to its intimate association with blood.

During fetal development, blood cells are born in the liver, and though that task later migrates to the bone marrow, the liver never loses its taste for the bodywide biochemical gossip that only the circulatory system can bring.

Most organs have a single source of blood. The liver alone has two blood supplies, the hepatic artery conveying oxygen-rich blood from the heart, the hepatic portal vein dropping off blood drained from the intestines and spleen. That portal blood delivers semi-processed foodstuffs in need of hepatic massaging, conversion, detoxification, storage, secretion, elimination.

“Everything you put in your mouth must go through the liver before it does anything useful elsewhere in the body,” Dr. Lok said.

The liver likes its bloodlines leaky. In contrast to the well-sealed vessels that prevent direct contact between blood and most tissues of the body, the arteries and veins that snake through the liver are stippled with holes, which means they drizzle blood right onto the hepatocytes.

The liver cells in turn are covered with microvilli — fingerlike protrusions that “massively enlarge” the cell surface area in contact with blood, said Dr. Markus Heim, a liver researcher at the University of Basel.

“Hepatocytes are swimming in blood,” he said. “That’s what makes them so incredibly efficient at taking up substances from the blood.”

As the master sampler of circulating blood, the liver keeps track of the body’s moment-to-moment energy demands, releasing glucose as needed from its stash of stored glycogen, along with any vitamins, minerals, lipids, amino acids or other micronutrients that might be required.

New research suggests the liver may take a proactive, as well as a reactive, role in the control of appetite and food choice.

Humans are famously fond of sweets, for example, presumably a legacy of our fruit-eating primate ancestors. But to gorge on sugar-rich foods, even in the relatively healthy format of a bucketful of Rainier cherries, could mean neglecting other worthy menu items.

Reporting in the journal Cell Metabolism, Matthew Gillum of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues showed that after exposure to a high-sugar drink, the liver seeks to dampen further sugar indulgence by releasing a signaling hormone called fibroblast growth factor 21, or FGF21.

The effort is not always successful. For reasons that remain unclear, the hormone comes in active and feeble varieties, and the researchers found that people with a mutant version of FGF21 confessed to a lifelong passion for sweets.

The scientists are searching for other liver-borne hormones that might influence the hunger for protein or fat.

“It makes sense that the liver could be a nexus of metabolic control,” Dr. Gillum said. “At some level it knows more than the brain does about energy availability, and whether you’re eating too many pears.”

The liver also keeps track of time. In a recent issue of the journal Cell, Ulrich Schibler of the University of Geneva and his colleagues described their studies of the oscillating liver, and how it swells and shrinks each day, depending on an animal’s normal circadian rhythms and feeding schedule.

The researchers found that in mice, which normally eat at night and sleep during the day, the size of the liver expands by nearly half after dark and then retrenches come daylight. The scientists also determined the cause of the changing dimensions.

“We wanted to know, is it just extra water or glycogen?” Dr. Schibler said. “Because that would be boring.”

It wasn’t boring. “The total gemish, the total soup of the liver turns out to be different,” he said. Protein production in mouse hepatocytes rises sharply at night, followed by equivalent protein destruction during the day.

Evidence suggests that a similar extravaganza of protein creation and destruction occurs in the human liver, too, but the timing is flipped to match our largely diurnal pattern.

The researchers do not yet know why the liver oscillates, but Dr. Schibler suggested it’s part of the organ’s fastidious maintenance program.

“The liver gets a lot of bad stuff coming through,” he said. “If you damage some of its components, you need to replace them.” By having a rhythm to that replacement, he said, “you keep the liver in a good state.”

Adding to the liver’s repair protocol, Dr. Grompe of Oregon Health and Science University said, is the extreme plasticity of hepatocytes.

He and others have shown that, through their extraordinary ability to handle multiple sets of chromosomes and still perform and divide normally, liver cells become almost like immune cells — genetically diverse enough to handle nearly any poison thrown at them.

“Our ancestors didn’t have healthy refrigerated food,” he said. “They ate a lot of crap, probably literally, and the liver in prehistoric times was continuously bombarded with toxins. You need every mechanism there is to adapt to that.”

The liver rose to the evolutionary challenge. So yes, I’m chopped liver — and proud.

By NATALIE ANGIER

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