Your Liver Is Your Life*

By Paul de Kruif

Ask your doctor to teach you how to take care of your liver. Follow his advice, and your liver will take care of you. The chemical genius of this mysterious organ is basic to the strong beat of your heart, the wide-open channels of your blood vessels, the soundness of your digestion, the sharpness of your brain, and the strength of your muscles.

The liver’s cells brew a vast and varied chemistry essential to the smooth functioning of all our organs. Some examples: Our kidneys couldn’t dispose of waste nitrogen if the liver didn’t turn it into urea for excretion. The liver stores vitamins necessary to the formation of blood cells in the marrow of our bones. Although sex activity begins in our gonad, it is the liver that balances their hormones so that we’re neither impotent nor sexually wild. The liver builds amino acids into the albumin that regulates the balance of salt and water without which we would not live. And the liver’s bile governs intestinal activity to keep us from being poisoned by the products of our own digestion.

When we have a hemorrhage, we would die if it weren’t for the liver. It not only helps control bleeding, but also helps by producing another substance to guard us against clotting that might otherwise fatally block the coronary arteries of the heart and the blood vessels of the brain. It combats viruses and bacterial poisons and tosses them out of the body. It gets rid of dangerous excesses of medicines, and keeps our tissues safe from chemicals encountered industrially.

This super-chemist also releases energy from food. From carbohydrates, it makes and stores glycogen and splits it into sugar (in the form of glucose)—slowly in life’s routine, and lightning-fast in emergencies. And it sees to the widespread deposit of fat for reserve food when we’re ill or starving.

It is no wonder, in view of its tremendous activity, that the liver is the largest of all our glands, 1/40th of the total weight of the body. Dark-red, dome-shaped, it fits snugly beneath the diaphragm, high up in the right side of the abdomen under the protective bony cage of the ribs.

Here is the liver’s mystery: the complex duties are all performed by just one kind of tiny cell. Present in millions, they are arranged in cord, one cell in thickness, bathed in a never-ending river of blood. Part of this blood, rich in foodstuffs for the liver’s chemical kitchen, comes by way of a great vein from the digestive tract; another part, high in oxygen, comes by way of a large artery off the aorta. The liver mixes these two streams of blood just before they merge to flow around the cells, the working units of the master laboratory.

You would think that the incessant labor of the liver’s cells would wear them out, kill them. It does just that. But the liver has a unique virtue: potential immortality. Dying brain cells or heart cells cannot be replaced; but the liver, amazingly, regenerates itself, over and over. In experiments, large pieces of liver have been removed at intervals from an animal until the total amount taken out exceeded by far the total original weight of the organ. That is the secret of the liver’s durability.

Yet the liver does sometimes break down under the enormous load it carries. The final consequence of breakdown is the dread cirrhosis of the liver. When—despite their remarkable trick of regenerating— liver cells die too fast, they leave behind them fibrous masses of hard connective tissue.

Luckily, as our liver begins sinking into this desperate state, it signals its plight. Vascular spiders—little blood vessels radiating out in fine branches—appear on the face and shoulders of victims of approaching liver failure. There is deep fatigue, muscles waste, sex urge fails. The liver enlarges, and chemical tests show that it is no longer keeping up the level of vital albumin of the blood. The formerly healthy liver cells, in their one-sided battle against unending chemical insults, fill up with fat and die.

What wrecks liver cells is often nutritional failure under their overload of chemical work. Of course, our liver is prone to many ills, including cancer and virus diseases such as serum jaundice and infectious hepatitis. But dominating all these, statistically, is the death of liver cells due to their own malnutrition.

The problem is to fight this deadly hidden hunger of the liver cells of human beings, many of whom are far gone with alcoholic cirrhosis. The treatment? Rest, a highly nutritious diet, and big doses of liver extract, dried brewer’s yeast powder, B-complex and other vitamins—and, of course, no alcohol. The recovery of many seemingly hopeless cirrhotics under this regimen is amazing.

Nutritional treatment of cirrhosis holds hope not only for heavy drinkers but also for us all. While liver disease is prevalent among alcoholics—some of whom are notoriously poor eaters and thus threatened with hunger that hits their livers— many of us may teeter on the brink of malnutrition, though we think we are eating adequately.

We are in luck. In view of the frequency of liver disease, that its predominating cause, malnutrition, doesn’t need specialists to mend it. The general practitioner can, not only treat it, but can prevent it.

Most doctors feed patients a diet high in calories, average to high in proteins, high in carbohydrates and average in fat. Though the diet itself is rich in vitamins, the patients are given supplements. Vitamin C is prescribed in big doses since only a little of it is stored in the body. Crystalline B vitamins and vitamin B12—a powerful fat mover—are administered in large amounts. Patients severely ill are also given crude liver extract, not only for its B-complex but also because of vitamin factors still not defined. And all patients are forbidden to take alcohol.

If the nutritional treatment of advanced cirrhosis is so powerfully curative, why not use it to guard the liver while its cells are still normal? The answer is that if we give our liver the right nutrition to work with, its cells will help to guard themselves. It takes far less to prevent liver failure than to relieve it.

*Source: The Reader’s Digest Book of the Human Body. 1964. 254-257.

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