I’ve been a personal trainer in London for 12 years now, and clients come to me with a variety of goals, from weight loss to muscle gain. But one of the greatest benefits of regular exercise and healthy eating is the effect on your internal organs. Most people recognise that cardiovascular exercise and good diet are beneficial for your heart, but few people think about their liver.
Anatomy of the liver
The liver is your largest internal organ, the shape of a triangle lying on its side, about 5-6 inches at its longest side. It’s located at the upper right hand side of your abdomen, and weighs approximately 1.5kg. It’s the only internal organ which can regenerate itself, unless it suffers cirrhosis, but more on that later.
Functions of the liver
The liver is one of your body’s most busy internal organs, with up to 500 separate functions, often in conjunction with other organs and systems of the body. The two main categories of functions are detoxification, and metabolism.
The liver cleanses your blood of a vast range of toxins which enter your body as a result of eating, drinking, inhaling, and even absorption through your skin. Special cells in the liver called kupffer cells ingest and break down these toxins in your blood (which enters your liver through the hepatic artery), and the cleaned blood leaves your liver by the hepatic vein, where it returns to the heart to be pumped around the body again.
Toxins from agricultural/animal farming chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, hormones), airborne toxins (from car exhausts, cigarette smoke, cleaning chemicals, deodorants), micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites), metabolic waste, dead cells (in particular red blood cells), drugs & alcohol; all these toxins are removed from the blood by the liver.
The liver produces and excretes bile, a yellowish liquid which helps break down and digest fats, and helps absorb vitamin K. The liver also makes cholesterol, a vital substance with many roles in the body, as long as LDL cholesterol levels remain under control.
The liver produces a range of hormones, such as insulin-like growth factor, and other metabolic hormones.
The liver stores glucose in the form of glycogen (which is also stored in the muscles), and converts glycogen back into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream when blood-sugar levels run low.
In addition to these functions, the liver stores a range of vitamins and minerals: vitamins A, D, B12 and K; and the minerals copper and iron.
Foods which boost liver-health
There are certain foods which are rich in nutrients which the liver needs to perform its functions. Sulphur-rich foods help the liver’s detox role, foods like onions, garlic, egg yolks, sprouts and broccoli.
Organic foods put less stress on the liver, because there are no pesticides, herbicides, or hormones.
The immune function of the liver is enhanced by foods like dry turmeric powder, ginger, and cinnamon.
One of the worst things to consume is alcohol, which in excess is highly toxic and forces the liver to postpone its other key functions in order to metabolise the alcohol first. Excessive alcohol over a sustained period causes the liver to scar (known as fibrosis) and extreme levels of scarring lead to cirrhosis of the liver, a very serious medical condition which can lead to liver failure.
Few people are aware that fruit and fruit juice in excess is also damaging to the liver. Fructose (fruit sugar) can only be metabolised by the liver (unlike glucose which can be metabolised by all the cells of the body), and soon becomes overloaded, at which point the excess fructose is converted to fat. One of my new personal training clients in Notting Hill thought that unlimited quantities of fruit were good for her health, a common misconception. I recommend you eat no more than 3 portions of fruit a day.
Excess fat consumption, particularly saturated fat and trans fats, can lead to fatty liver disease, which reduces the ability of the liver to perform its functions, and causes a build-up of dangerous toxins in the body.
Your liver works hard to keep you healthy. Treat it with respect and help it perform at its best.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London.