Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Be thankful for...your liver(!?)
The heart gets all the press, and for obvious reasons: when your heart stops beating, that's it. You're gone. The brain is a media darling, too, as are the lungs--and for the same reasons. If either one stops functioning (stroke or respiratory arrest) you're either dead or severely damaged if things don't get moving again in a hurry. Hell, even the kidneys and pancreas have stepped into the spotlight, what with the explosion in diabetes education. But for my money, the organ with the mostest--the brilliant but forgotten stepchild, if you will--is the liver. Often overlooked but desperately important, your liver is the kid in high school who finished group projects while the rest of the group jerked off; it's the person in your office who quietly works after hours without complaining about it the next day. It reads the memos about TPS reports (Office Space joke about anatomy and physiology--what's the nerd quotient for that? I guess it could be worse...it could've been a Star Wars analogy). Maybe I like the liver so much because I identify with it...a little too much. Is that healthy?
So what does your liver do, I hear you asking, besides processing those lunchtime martinis and after-work glasses of scotch (or, depending who you are, the gulps of the Jim Beam you keep in the bottom drawer at work, cleverly concealed beneath old memos about the company's drug and alcohol policy...yeah, everyone knows, and your breath mints aren't fooling anyone)? Well...
Your liver stores iron. When you're sick especially, your liver 'sequesters' iron so that the little beasties invading your body don't have access to the mineral they need to survive (which is one reason why you may have heard not to take iron when you're ill). Before you're born, at which point your bone marrow starts to kick into gear, your liver makes a lot of your blood. It stores 'quick energy' for your body in the form of a complex carbohydrate called glycogen, which is then released during physical activity when your blood sugar starts to drop; thank your liver that you don't have to eat every twenty minutes to keep your blood sugar relatively steady. Your liver also makes and regulates clotting factors, keeping you from bleeding to death when you get a paper cut or that monthly visit from much-despised Aunt Flo. It releases hormones that affect where and when you store or release fat (though please don't blame your liver for those love handles). It manufactures and releases cholesterol, a certain amount of which is necessary for the smooth functioning of your various parts--your cell membranes are largely made of cholesterol, if you'll think back to freshman biology. In addition, Madame Liver manufactures and controls the release of bile from the gallbladder, enabling you to digest the fat in your Dunkin' Donuts Pumpkin Spice donut (DD has recently arrived in Missouri, and though I had vague memories of it from the summer I spent in Philadelphia, where they seem to be almost as numerous as Starsucks, and the drive-through on Highway 13 in Ithaca which I never even drove through, I have to say I'm duly impressed. Still not as good as Krispy Kreme, but hey, what is?). And, of course, your liver breaks down all the drugs (of course, you only take the legal, prescribed ones...right? Oh, it's OK, your liver isn't going to call the cops if it has to deal with a little THC now and again) and mildly poisonous substances you come into contact with over the course of an average modern day.
So give your liver some appreciation today. It's located under your ribcage, mostly on the left side (I mean--right; left is just where you feel for hepatomegaly and tenderness, I think)--give it an affectionate little pat for all it does.