Liver Health

29 January 2015

What is liver disease?

There are over 100 types of liver disease; some are genetic conditions that appear in childhood while others are acquired.


The liver, weighing in at about 1,5 kg, is the second largest organ in the human body. The largest is the skin. It is located in the upper right-hand side of the abdomen and is protected by the rib cage. It performs several major functions in the body with regards to metabolism, immunity, digestion and the storage of nutrients. The liver is the only organ in the body that can regenerate and repair itself up to a point.

The liver secretes bile, which is stored in the gall bladder. After meals, the bile is released into the intestines to help with the digestion of fats and in the absorption of particular vitamins. The liver receives blood directly from the intestines and processes these nutrients in order for the body to use.

Some of the main functions of the liver include:

- Regulating the production of proteins (maintaining blood volume and regulating blood clotting)
- Forming and releasing bile
- Storing iron
- Breaking down poisons and releasing them from the body
- Removing bacteria from the blood and assisting the immune system
- Making and storing cholesterol and fatty acids
- Processing sugars and making it possible for the body to use this as energy

The liver is involved in so many different processes in addition to its role in immunity, hence a myriad of things can go wrong with it.

According to the Merck Manual the main features of liver disease include jaundice (a yellowing of the skin), liver enlargement, a swollen abdomen, mental confusion, bleeding in the oesophagus and/or stomach, itching, hormonal abnormalities, fatigue, weakness, weight loss and bleeding.

There are 2 main categories of acute and chronic liver disease according to the Free Medical Dictionary: the first type is genetic, and the second type is acquired later in life as a result of either an infection, or exposure to toxic substances. Obesity and diabetes can also be associated with liver damage.

Common congenital liver diseases

Many of these diseases are fairly rare, but as the liver plays such a fundamental part in maintaining our health, the effects of these inherited diseases become apparent quickly in young children. There are over a hundred kinds of liver disease. Some of the most common congenital ones, according to the Free Medical Dictionary are:

- Biliary atresia (a condition in which bile ducts do not develop normally)

- Haemochromatosis (iron accumulates in the body especially the liver)

- Wilson’s disease (inability to excrete copper with accumulation in the liver and brain)

- Gilbert’s disease (a metabolic disorder)

- Alpha 1- antitrypsin deficiency (causes liver damage)

- Glycogen storage disease type 2 (causes liver damage)

Treatment for these diseases range from the taking of medication to potentially needing a liver transplant in serious cases.

Acquired liver diseases

The diseases affecting the liver include viral diseases (such as hepatitis) diseases caused by parasites, and exposure of the liver to toxic substances, often over a long period of time. Cancer of the liver can develop either in the liver, or spread there from other organs.

Here’s more about the main acquired liver diseases:

Cancer of the liver can develop either primarily in the liver, or spread there from other organs. There is also a condition called liver haemangioma, which refers to a benign mass in the liver.

Hepatitis A, B, and C are three viral infections. Hepatitis A is often the result of food or water contaminated with faeces. Hepatitis B can be acquired in childhood (child to child transmission), infancy (mother to child) or in adults (through sexual contact), Hepatitis C can be the result of sharing drug needles or blood transfusions prior to 1990.

Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholic hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver typically caused by sustained high alcohol consumption. Cirrhosis of the liver has many causes, but the most common is high alcohol consumption, which can lead to irreversible damage to this organ. Cirrhosis of the liver describes a condition in which scar tissue replaces healthy cells in the liver, according to the U.S. National Institute of Health. Blood no longer flows easily through this organ and it cannot perform its essential functions.

The prognosis for liver disease depends on the type of liver disease a patient has. Certain infectious liver diseases have a high recovery rate, but once liver scarring has taken place, the damage is usually irreversible. If alcohol related, it’s NEVER too late to stop drinking!

Reviewed by Dr. Mark W Sonderup, B Pharm, MB ChB, FCP (SA). Senior Specialist, Division of Hepatology, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town (January 2015).

Read more:
Symptoms of liver disease
Causes of liver disease
Diagnosing liver disease

Image: Highlighted liver from Shutterstock


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