In last month’s blog, Things to Know About Your Liver, I focused on the organ’s role in daily detoxification and what types of foods and lifestyle practices are recommended for optimal liver health. This month I’ll highlight the liver’s metabolic processes and throw some science your way to help you understand how food is broken down in your body and to demonstrate how essential the liver is in converting food into what you are becoming. You’ve probably have heard of that old saying, “you are what you eat”, and after reading more about the liver and metabolism, you can see how important a healthy diet and lifestyle are to maintaining a healthy liver.
Think of your liver like a laboratory. Within its structure, you will find the right tools to nourish and detoxify the entire body, break down blood, make or store vitamins and minerals, and partake in breaking down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
If it weren’t for your liver, which make a molecule called bile (bile acids) that help you absorb fat from your gut into your bloodstream, you probably wouldn’t be able to utilize all the good fats you get from your diet. A few examples of foods rich in good fats include olive, flax, or sunflower oil; avocados; almonds; cashews; legumes; and fish. In fat metabolism, the liver cells break down the fat and produce energy, approximately 800 to 1,000 milliliters of bile each day. Bile is important for the breakdown and absorption of fats. Fat bile gets released from your gall bladder where it’s stored before it’s released into your small intestine where it combines and hooks up with fat molecules. The fat you consume actually gets into the blood stream via the lymphatic system, not directly into the blood stream like sugars do.
When the food you eat gets broken down into small sugar molecules, sugar can get transferred directly across the membrane of your small intestine, right into your blood stream and capillaries. When it gets transported into the liver, it gets packaged into bigger packages that can be stored for later when your body needs energy.
In the metabolism of carbohydrates, the liver helps to ensure that the level of sugar in your blood (blood glucose) stays constant. If your blood sugar levels increase (for example, after a meal) the liver removes sugar from blood supplied by the portal vein and stores it in the form of glycogen. If someone’s blood sugar levels are too low, the liver breaks down glycogen and releases sugar into the blood. As well as sugar, the liver also stores vitamins and minerals (such as iron and copper), and releases them into the blood when needed.
Proteins get broken down in your stomach and intestines into their smallest components called amino acids. The amino acids get delivered right across the lining of your gut and they get taken into the liver where the liver helps metabolize the amino acids. Liver cells change amino acids in foods so that they can be used to produce energy, or make carbohydrates or fats. Most of the proteins found in your blood stream are called albumin. Albumin is an important part of your blood and helps it function normally.
To recap what we’ve covered thus far, when it comes to metabolism, the liver gets fats into the blood stream for processing, takes sugars and packages them for storage, and takes amino acids and converts them into helpful molecules that make energy, muscle, and protein for your blood. And this is just scratching the surface of what your liver is responsible for every day! Because the liver performs so many vital functions, it is prone to compromised function.
What steps can you take to prevent weakening your liver? Let’s start by taking a look at your body’s fuel—your food! Take care of your liver by eating a balanced whole foods diet, drink plenty of water, and avoid the following: over-eating as a general rule, processed foods, frequent use of alcohol or drugs, pesticides, and chemical cleaners. What you take into your body, as well as expose it to, has a significant impact on your health. I hope this blog posts has helped expand your awareness of what your liver is up to on a daily basis and inspire you to take good care of this precious organ.