Anatomy and Function of the Liver
Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Bhupinder S. Anand, MBBS, MD, DPHIL (OXON)
Dr. Anand received MBBS degree from Medical College Amritsar, University of Punjab. He completed his Internal Medicine residency at the Postgraduate Institute of medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India. He was trained in the field of Gastroenterology and obtained the DPhil degree. Dr. Anand is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.
- What is the liver? Is it a gland or an organ?
- What is the functional purpose of the liver?
- What does the liver look like, and where is it located in the body?
- What diseases affect the liver?
- Fatty liver disease
- Genetic disorders
- Abnormalities of bile flow from the liver
- Decrease in blood flow draining from the liver
- What are symptoms of diseases of the liver?
- How is an examination of the liver performed?
- What is a liver biopsy?
- Can diseases of the liver be prevented?
- Find a local Doctor in your town
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.
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