Anatomy and Function of the Liver

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What is the liver? Is it a gland or an organ?

The liver is one of the vital organs of the body, responsible for hundreds of chemical actions that the body needs to survive. It is also a gland because it secretes chemicals that are used by other parts of the body. For these reasons the liver is both an organ and a gland.

What is the functional purpose of the liver?

The liver has multiple functions. It makes many of the chemicals required by the body to function normally, it breaks down and detoxifies substances in the body, and it also acts as a storage unit.

Hepatocytes (hepar=liver + cyte=cell) are responsible for making much of the proteins in the body that are required for protein synthesis, including blood clotting factors, and albumin, required to maintain fluid within the circulation system. The liver is also responsible for manufacturing cholesterol and triglycerides. Carbohydrates are also produced in the liver and the organ is responsible for turning glucose into glycogen that can be stored both in the liver and in the muscle cells. The liver also makes bile that helps with food digestion.

The liver plays an important role in detoxifying the body by converting ammonia, a byproduct of metabolism in the body, into urea that is excreted in the urine by the kidneys. The liver also breaks down medications and drugs, including alcohol, and is responsible for breaking down insulin and other hormones in the body.

The liver is also able to store vitamins and chemicals that the body requires as building blocks. This includes:

  • vitamin B12,
  • folic acid,
  • iron required to make red blood cells,
  • vitamin A for vision,
  • vitamin D for calcium absorption, and
  • vitamin K to help blood to clot properly.

What does the liver look like, and where is it located in the body?

The liver is the largest internal organ of the body and is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and is protected by the lower right ribs. It also extends across the midline toward the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. Should it become enlarged, the liver will grow further across the upper abdomen and down towards the navel (umbilicus).

The liver is divided into two lobes and has a rich blood supply obtained from two sources; 1) the portal vein delivers blood from the gastrointestinal tract (stomach, intestine, colon) and spleen, and 2) the hepatic artery supplies blood from the heart.

The biliary tree describes a system of tubes that collect bile, used to help digest food, and drains it into the gallbladder or the intestine. Intrahepatic ducts are located inside the liver (intra=inside + hepar=liver) while extrahepatic ducts are located outside the liver.

Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/16/2014

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Liver - Type of Disease and Treatments Question: Please share the type of liver disease you have, and any treatments or lifestyle changes you have made that have been effective for liver disease.
Liver - Symptoms of Disease Question: What symptoms did you experience with liver disease?
Liver - Biopsy Question: Please share your experience with liver biopsy.
Liver - Infection Question: What type of infection affected your liver? Please share your symptoms and treatments.
Liver - Medications Question: What medications caused inflammation of the liver? What was the treatment?
Liver - Hepatitis Question: What type of hepatitis do you have? What were your symptoms? Do you know how you contracted it and what treatments have you undergone?

Fatty Liver, High Cholesterol, and Statins

Digestion Q&A by Dr. Lee

Viewer question: My doctor told me that I have fatty liver and high cholesterol. He also said that my liver is slightly inflamed because my liver tests are mildly abnormal. He wants me to lose weight, exercise and take Lipitor to lower my cholesterol. I also read that Lipitor can have liver side effects. Is it safe to take Lipitor in somebody like me?

Doctor's response: Low dose statins like atorvastatin (Lipitor) are safe in patients with mild liver disease (for example, patients with fatty liver and mildly abnormal liver tests in the blood such as ALT and AST).


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