I’ve written before about how your liver breaks down and gets rid of alcohol in your body, but that isn’t all the liver does. Actually, it’s just a small part of it, because your liver is a multi-tasking super-organ, responsible for a ridiculously wide range of functions in your body, over 500 in fact. This puts my previously impressive ability to talk on the phone whilst cooking and stroking the cat simultaneously into the shade, somewhat.
Obviously I’m not going to write a dissertation right now on all the 500+ functions of the liver, because it’s Friday and you almost certainly have better things to do than stay here all day reading a 20,000 word essay. Still, it is worth knowing some of the amazing stuff your liver does because… well, because it’s awesome, frankly. What more reason do you need?!
So, apart from sweeping up alcohol and other toxins, and efficiently dispatching them into the night, or the toilet bowl, the liver also plays a role in aiding digestion. The liver is where bile is produced, before it is transported to the gall bladder for storage. Then, when you eat, bile is released into your intestines. Bile is made up of bile salts and water, with a little bit of mucus and some fats thrown into the delicious mix too.
Why is bile important then? It helps your body to digest fat; fat is difficult to digest, it repels water and basically just clumps together in big antisocial groups, hating the world and refusing to be broken down or do anything useful in the stomach. The bile salts in bile get around this by having split personalities; one half loves to socialise with water, the other half hates water just as much as the fat. These two-faced bile salts convince small droplets of fat to talk to their hydrophobic side, while their hydrophilic side continues to hang around with the water. A protective ring of bile salts surround each fatty droplet, so that the fat sees only anti-social hydrophobic bile salts, and doesn’t notice that just beyond them, water is all around. This process is called emulsification, and it’s actually exactly the same process that soap uses to get rid of fat on your skin, or hair, or kitchen floor; sneakily surrounding the fat molecules with two-sided chemicals, so that water can carry them away.
Bile also interacts with vitamins A, D, E and K, and encourages them to hang around. Otherwise, they would simply skip through the body and never make it into your bloodstream at all. Luckily, however, they’re highly attracted to bile, which really just goes to show that everything in the world is attractive, if you look at it the right way.
Once all the nutrients from your food have been absorbed into the bloodstream, they’re carried to the liver for screening. Alongside everything else it’s getting on with, the liver is responsible for processing nutrients and getting rid of any poisons taken into the body.
For example, carbohydrates absorbed into the bloodstream from food are taken to the liver and broken down into glucose. If your body has immediate need of the glucose, for example if you’re busy running a marathon or something, then glucose is used to provide energy. However, if you’re just sitting around after lunch feeling full, the glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver until it is needed. So, until the next time you run a marathon… or just climb the stairs or something. The way that your body controls the release and storage of glycogen is a post for another time because although the liver is heavily involved, in this case it doesn’t act alone, it’s partner-in-crime, the pancreas is here to help.