Among its other functions, the liver serves as storage space for vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K, as well as the minerals copper and iron. Because the human body maintains stores of these vitamins and minerals normally, it is relatively easy to overload the liver with them, causing liver damage. That’s why healthy people with normal liver function should be cautious about taking supplements of vitamins and minerals. Iron, for instance, is harmful to people with a genetic abnormality known as hemochromatosis, which causes them to absorb too much iron.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K (commonly referred to as “fat-soluble vitamins”) can exist only in fatty solutions, so when a liver disease causes the bile flow to be interrupted, the body can’t digest the fats it needs to absorb these vitamins. That’s a serious situation in the case of vitamin K, which we need at all times to help our blood to clot. Another little-known function of the liver is its role in processing amino acids, which link together to form proteins, the primary component of muscle. Without a healthy liver, the human
body can’t produce and maintain the muscles not only in out arms, legs, and face, but also in our other organs, such as the heart.
The liver is also involved in regulating our energy level, by storing extra glucose as a carbohydrate known as glycogen and releasing glucose into the blood when we need an energy boost. When the liver isn’t functioning well, it doesn’t efficiently regulate the blood’s glucose levels.
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The liver even affects our mental sharpness. When we eat animal proteins, the intestines produce harmful ammonia during digestion, and the liver is responsible for converting that ammonia into urea, a harmless substance that travels to the kidneys and eventually is eliminated from the body. When the liver is diseased, the ammonia doesn’t get converted but builds up in the blood and brain, contributing to a form of mental confusion called encephalopathy. (The exact mechanism of hepatic encephalopathy is complex and not solely the result of a high ammonia level. Research is ongoing in this area.)
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Pinpointing a liver disease is not a straightforward process. Many symptoms of liver disorders are vague, and most can also be indicators of scores of other illnesses. The hallmark symptoms—fatigue, low-grade fever, and flulike symptoms such as muscle and joint aches, headaches, nausea, and weakness-—-all are associated with a number of liver disorders, but they are also symptoms of many ailments unrelated to the liver.
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