Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

What role does your liver play? 

3/28/2022 by John Poterucha, M.D.


The liver has many functions, including: 

  • Manufacturing most body proteins. 
  • Clearing or filtering of substances, including many of the nutrients that are eaten. 
  • Regulating blood flow, especially blood flow that goes to the intestines. 
  • Making bile, which aids digestion. 

It is one of the largest organs in the body. 

How do you know if you have liver disease? 

Liver injury can result in minor abnormalities of blood tests. When a liver injury is advanced, it can lead to fluid retention; changes in cognitive function; jaundice, or a yellow tint to the skin; and internal bleeding. Most patients with liver injury will not develop symptoms of liver failure, but they may need to be assessed to determine the severity of liver disease. 

If your health care professional makes a diagnosis of liver disease, assessment will generally include blood tests to assess liver function and exclude underlying causes; a scan of the liver using ultrasound, CT or MRI imaging; and rarely, a biopsy of the liver. Your health care professional also may refer you to a specialist, such as a hepatologist or gastroenterologist, for an additional assessment. 

Common causes of liver disease

Liver disease has many causes, including: 

  • Fat in the liver, often related to obesity, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. 
  • Excess use of alcohol. 
  • Viral infection, such as hepatitis A, B and C. 
  • Adverse drug reactions. 
  • Inflammatory and inherited disorders. 

Treating liver disease

Liver disease is treated based on the underlying cause. Those with fat in the liver that is related to obesity will see improvement in liver inflammation when they lose weight. Those who use alcohol in excess can see improvement when they abstain from alcohol. Drugs are available for hepatitis B and C. 

When liver disease becomes severe, liver transplantation may be required. A machine is available that can temporarily take over some liver functions, but this machine is only useful for a few days. Generally, this machine is a bridge to transplantation or to allow the patient a short period of time to regain liver function. 

Keeping your liver healthy

To keep your liver healthy, avoid drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per day and try to maintain an ideal body weight. Treating conditions associated with liver disease, such as diabetes and elevated cholesterol, is also important. 

Research suggests that drinking coffee may improve outcome in patients with underlying liver disease. 

John Poterucha, M.D., is a physician in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He is part of Mayo's William J. von Liebig Center for Transplantation and Clinical Regeneration.