The spleen – our largest lymphatic organ

The spleen is another relatively misunderstood organ.  It is roughly the size of a clenched fist and sits behind our stomach on the left hand side of our abdomen behind our 11th rib.  As a foetus in our mother’s womb it helped to create new blood cells for us – something that it can start doing again in certain health issues.  It has several functions, it stores platelets – these are required to seal up a wound if we cut ourselves, the platelets stick together and enable the healing to take place, if we do accidently cut ourselves then the spleen releases the platelets that it stores in response to the situation.  The spleen also contains white blood cells called lymphocytes and works as part of our immune system filtering blood and destroying any bacteria or other pathogens which could make us ill.  These lymphocytes are found in what is known as the white pulp within the organ.  Some of the lymphocytes travel around the body to help to fight infection but the remainder stay within the white pulp and respond to any infectious agents as they are presented.

As well as white pulp within the spleen there are masses of red pulp, this is made up of high levels of arteries, veins and capillaries and also acts via a filtering process.  The role is to remove any damaged red blood cells (which transport oxygen to every cell in our body).  Red blood cells usually live for 120 days around which time they become less efficient at transporting the gases required for respiration.  It is when they are old, past their best or damaged that the spleen filters them out and breaks them down so that they can be recycled into new red blood cells.  When we actually look at our body it is highly efficient, capable of recycling, sustainability and minimum waste.  For those of you who are into permaculture and biomimicry there is a lot to be learned from looking at ourselves.

So to sum up the spleen filters and breaks down damaged red blood cells, as a lymphatic organ it helps to detect and overcome possible infections, it stores platelets in case of an emergency and as a foetus it actually produced red blood cells which in certain circumstances it can resume doing again.  Quite impressive really!

The Traditional Chinese Medicinal (TCM) view of this organ is similar but there are differences which cannot be accounted for when looking at the organ in health, its structure and its functions.  This doesn’t detract from the efficacy of TCM, it is something I highly regard – the model of complementary medicine is effective and I utilise an eclectic blend of their philosophy, diagnostic techniques and herbs.  Whereas western medicine doesn’t view the spleen as an essential organ for life – it can be removed and although people who have it removed are prone to more infections, courses of vaccinations are generally given to substitute the spleens role in our health and wellbeing.  In TCM the spleen is essential to health and vitality taking a role in enabling us to assimilate the nutrients digested from the stomach and promoting and maintaining our physical strength.  All aspects of vitality depend on the entire body receiving proper nutrition from the healthy functioning of this essential organ in TCM.

There are several health issues which are due to issues with the spleen:

An enlarged spleen (known as splenomegaly) can be caused by numerous health issues, commonly these are viral mononucleosis (“mono”), liver disease and blood cancers (lymphoma and leukemia) although this isn’t every condition that can result in an enlarged spleen.  One of the issues raised by this condition related to the fact that the spleen stores platelets.  An enlarged spleen has a greater capacity to store more platelets.  Thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) can be secondary to (caused by) an enlarged spleen resulting in abnormally few platelets circulating in the bloodstream where they belong.

Ruptured spleen: The spleen is vulnerable to injury, and a ruptured spleen can cause serious life-threatening internal bleeding and is a life-threatening emergency.  A common cause of a ruptured spleen are car crashes or road traffic accidents – the impact of the collision causes the driver to slam into his or her steering wheel which can cause trauma to the spleen due to where it is positioned in the body.  Although the spleen is protected by the rib cage it is a soft and therefore tender organ.   An injured spleen may rupture immediately after an injury, or in some cases, days or weeks after an injury so I recommend that if you have experienced any forceful trauma which affects the upper left side of your abdomen to seek medical help as they have diagnostics such as CT scans which can determine if any injury such as a rupture has occurred..

Sickle cell disease and thalassemia are inherited forms of anemia (low red blood cells), in both cases abnormal red blood cells block the flow of blood through vessels and can lead to organ damage, including damage to the spleen. People with these blood conditions are treated by the medical profession with immunisations to prevent illnesses that their spleen helped fight.  In sickle cell disease the blood cells have the shape of a sickle instead of being round, in thalassemia they are smaller than the usual red blood cells.  If both parents have the genes that pass on these blood traits then the baby has the same health issues, if only one parent has them then they have a trait and care should be taken when choosing to have a baby as copulating with someone else with the same trait will mean that the baby has the full blown health issues.

About 10% of people have a small extra spleen. This causes no problems and is considered normal.

Several herbal remedies have historically been used in treating spleen problems, especially spleen enlargement. Some of the helpful herbs for the spleen include dandelion, cleavers, barberry and iris.  Dandelion is indicated to support the spleen in conditions such as anaemia and diabetes, it stimulates the portal circulation (which includes the spleen).  Cleavers is a common garden weed and is a fantastic lymphatic alterative and detoxifier.  Barberry is a tonic to the spleen and pancreas and can help to lower blood pressure.  Iris, also known as blue flag, is a herbal remedy that may be helpful in treating your spleen problems. The rhizome of the plant contains numerous medicinal ingredients including triterpenoids that have a beneficial effect.  Blue flag iris acts as an anti-inflammatory, blood and lymph purifier and a powerful alterative for passive sluggish conditions involving the liver, gallbladder, lymphatics, veins and glandular systems.

New Jersey tea has been used historically for disorders of the spleen and agrimony is a very popular ‘spleen tonic’ in TCM and has been found to be protective for the liver and spleen during chemotherapy.  If you crave sweet foods, as part of the symptom picture it could suggest that your spleen isn’t working effectively.  The following nutrients are beneficial for this organ: Vitamin A, B12, C and D, iron and zinc.

Our Gallbladder – do you know what it does?

The gallbladder is a pear shaped organ that is tucked away in your abdomen next to your liver and is around 7-10cm long.  The prefix gall translated means bile which is what this small organ stores after bile is produced from specialist cells within the liver.  Although a small organ it has a huge role to play when it comes to us digesting our food.  Without bile we could not digest fats.  Before you say that it would be a good thing if we couldn’t digest fats, you have to realise that they are essential to our health and wellbeing.

Different organs within our body have different prefered sources of energy.  Our heart prefers fatty acids and poorly accesses carbohydrates as fuel, our kidneys use a blend of fats and carbohydrates,  our liver wouldn’t function without fats and when we eat fat in our diet the liver gets first pick of the fats to enable its important functions within the body and although the brain cannot access energy from fats the metabolic activities of the liver are essential for providing fuel to brain, muscles and other peripheral organs which rely on carbs (glucose).  Also any of you who love to exercise or who are active, our body has stores of glucose within the liver and muscles but when these have been used up (whether this is running, canoeing or whatever your passion) then our fat deposits are then accessed to get the energy required.

The gallbladder acts as a storage vessel for bile produced by the liver. Bile is produced by hepatocytes cells in the liver and passes through the bile ducts to the cystic duct. From the cystic duct, bile is pushed into the gallbladder by peristalsis (muscle contractions that occur in orderly waves). Bile is then slowly concentrated by absorption of water through the walls of the gallbladder. The gallbladder stores this concentrated bile until it is needed to digest the next meal.

Foods rich in proteins or fats are more difficult for the body to digest when compared to carbohydrate-rich foods. The walls of our stomach contain sensory receptors that monitor the chemical makeup of the food which we eat. When these cells detect fats, they respond by producing the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK enters the bloodstream and travels to the gallbladder where it stimulates the smooth muscle tissue in the walls of the gallbladder.  The contraction of smooth muscle forces bile out of the gallbladder and into further ducts within the digestive system where it breaks the fats into smaller masses for easier digestion.

Gallstones occur when bile, which is normally fluid, forms stones. Gallstones commonly contain lumps of fatty (cholesterol-like) material that has solidified and hardened. Sometimes bile pigments or calcium deposits form gallstones. Sometimes just a few small stones are formed; sometimes a great many. Occasionally, just one large stone is formed.  This condition is excruciatingly painful and symptoms include: extreme tenderness in the upper right abdomen, dyspepsia, flatulence, vomiting, sweating, thirst and constipation.  Prolonged obstruction of the bile ducts can cause jaundice (where the skin turns yellow).  Pain should be evaluated by a competent authority such as a GP or hospital as large stones may require surgery.

About one in three women, and one in six men, form gallstones at some stage in their life. Gallstones become more common with increasing age. The risk of forming gallstones increases with pregnancy, obesity, rapid weight loss, having a close relative with gallstones, diabetes and if you take certain medicines such as the contraceptive pill. Being vegetarian and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol may reduce the risk of forming gallstones.

Herbal medicine is used therapeutically in this condition to increase the flow of bile, disperse wind and reduce the painful spasms experienced.  Herbal medicine can also be used to prevent infection and gallstone formation.

Diet is the number one reason for a poorly functioning gallbladder. Don’t let anyone tell you that diet has no relationship to the gallbladder. Ample research tells us that our diet not only affects every cell in our body but obviously those of digestion. Even before the insulin link to the gallbladder was discovered just a few years ago  many physicians recognized the importance of diet on metabolism:

1) Bad fats – these include the obvious partially hydrogenated “trans” fats but also those refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils that so many think are good to eat – corn, soy, canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, cottonseed, and grapeseed.  Deep fried foods are especially terrible for your gallbladder. Stick with the good fats please – coconut, eggs, extra virgin oil, fish and flax, butter and heavy cream (moderation) and raw nuts and seeds.

2) Refined carbohydrates – these, along with the bad fats, are where the oxidation (free radical damage) and the inflammation comes from, and it can take its toll on the gallbladder because its effect on cholesterol.  Refined carbohydrates include white pasta, white rice, supernoodles (which are deep fried and therefore 20% fat!!!), white breads etc.  Carbohydrates break down to sugar and therefore sugars should be included in this category – high fructose corn syrup – it’s one of the worst!

3) Smoking – Unhealthy for your entire body and really takes its toll on the gallbladder too.

4) Excess caffeine – yeah too much caffeine can stress out the gallbladder. How much is too much? That depends on the individual. For some it may be three cups of espresso and for another it may be one ounce of chocolate per day. If you’re having gallbladder problems stop all caffeine until it’s better.  People can experience caffeine withdrawals including painful headaches.  If you feel that you need to cut out caffeine do so gradually by eliminating one cup/source each week so that your body becomes accustomed to the accessible levels.

5) Alcohol – again this is individualized but obviously too much alcohol is not healthy for your liver, gallbladder, or the rest of your body, what is more is that alcohol is high in sugar and can increase weight gain as well as impacting on the health of your liver.

6) Apartame (Nutrasweet) and other sweeteners (all of which are neurotoxic and possibly cancer causing) – this one is huge and there seems to be a clinical correlation between people who intake a high amount of diet products and have their gallbladder removed.

7) NSAIDS – and other anti-inflammatories can take their toll on the liver and gallbladder. Other meds can too but NSAIDS more often, especially for chronic users.

8) Birth control pills (BCP), hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and yes even the intrauterine device (IUD) – hormonal regulation and metabolism is a major factor when it comes to the liver and even the gallbladder – that’s why the females who are still fertile are part of the medical risk factor. Oestrogen dominance has a huge impact on the health of the gallbladder. Considering that oestrogen and the mineral copper closely parallel one another, many women have copper toxicity problems due to estrogen dominance and then gallbladder problems because some of those bile salts are copper salts – that’s where the bile gets its green color from – copper! You don’t have to be on The Pill or taking hormones to have a gallbladder problem related to your hormones – it can be from inefficient hormonal detoxification. Guys too – you can have testosterone and oestrogen problems.

If you’re having gallbladder problems and it’s not an emergency situation, (let’s all use common sense here), then the first thing to do is to change your diet and lifestyle and assess your risk factors.

Lemons and beets are great foods for your liver and gallbladder – they help to keep bile healthy and non-viscous. So eating these foods regularly can be beneficial.

During an uncomfortable, “attack” you can try sipping some lemon juice. Take one-half of a fresh squeezed lemon and mix it with about 6oz of water and sip it (don’t gulp it down) over the next 30 minutes. If it works, keep doing it until you’ve received full relief. Ginger works well too for some people, but more for nausea. Try to use real ginger root not those rolled in a lot of sugar. You can add it to a smoothie or juiced drink.

You can also try a cold pack over the area of your gallbladder – the upper right quadrant of your abdomen. Place the cold pack about half way over your ribs and half over the abdomen. Don’t put ice directly on your skin or you may burn – but wrap in a paper towel or put over your clothing. Leave the ice on long enough to get a “numb” feeling and depending on the relief you get from it. If any area of your skin in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen feels warm to the touch, that is exactly where you should try to cool it down.

Obviously with the recommendations here if you keep having to do the same things over and over (ice or lemon juice) then you’re not figuring out the problem and just getting by with temporary relief. If the pain gets worse and worse – either that same day or with each subsequent attack – you should seek medical attention.

If you would like herbal support for your gallbladder health do not hesitate to contact me: http://www.herbsforhealthandwellbeing.co.uk where you can have a full consultation, receive an individualised prescription tailored to your needs and personalised dietary and lifestyle advice.

Forget-me-not, for I am the borage family Boraginaceae :)

The boraginaceae family is commonly known as the borage family or the forget me not family.  Both are members of this plant family and both grow wild around Grimsby and can be seen on the regular herb walks I give around Bradley Woods.  This family are mainly herbaceous plants (which die back to the ground after each growing season).  There are roughly 100 genera within this family and 2000 species.

boragiaceae flower

Boraginaceae was initially classified as Lamiales because they shared (with Lamiaceae and Verbenaceae) ovaries with four deeply divided partitions, a style attached to the base of the ovary, and fruits that break apart into four nutlets. These similarities appear to have evolved independently, however, and borages differ in having alternate leaves, round stems, different secondary metabolites (no iridoid alkaloids), regular flowers, the same number of stamens and petals, and flower clusters.

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands :)

The virginia bluebell is no relative to our British bluebells which are currently carpeting woodlands 🙂

The family includes a number of garden ornamentals, such as heliotrope and Virginia bluebell.  There are also several toxic members of this family due to the secondary metabolites that they possess. Medicinally members of this family include Pulmonaria (lungwort), Myosotis (forget-me-not), Borago officinalis (borage) and Symphytum officinale (comfrey).  There is also Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss), Lithospermum officinale (Gromwell) and Cynoglossum officinale (Hound’s-tongue).

Symphytum officinale - comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Symphytum officinale – comfrey in flower (the bees love it!)

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are found in most, if not all, of the plants of the Boraginaceae family. Some of these alkaloids are hepatotoxic (toxic to the liver), causing veno-occlusive disease of the liver, which can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver. There is also some suspicion of carcinogenicity. The development of veno-occlusive disease in adults has only so far been observed after long-term intake of high doses. However, infants and children seem to be more susceptible, with some case reports of hepatotoxic responses after minimal exposure – therefore herbs in this family should only be used under the guidance and supervision of professionals such as herbalists and doctors.

borage (4)

Members of the Boraginaceae family are often covered with bristly hairs. The flowers have a radial symmetry, often borne along one side of branches or at the tip of the stem, in a spirally coiled inflorescence that unwinds as the flowers mature (some are similar to a scorpions tail uncurling).  There are 5 sepals, united at the base into a calyx, 5 petals, united into a corolla.  The flowers have 5 stamens and 1 style.  There are often small appendages (fornices) on the insides of the petals near the point where the tube and limb join.  All these parts are attached near the base of the ovary.  The leaves are simple, usually alternate and bristly-hairy.  The fruit is usually a dry capsule that separates into 4 hard, seed-like sections (nutlets). In a few species the fruit is a berry.

In discussion of the Doctrine of Signatures, “Large leaves stand for surface area and gas exchanges or breathing, hence the lungs and skin……..Hairy or hirsute leaves and stems are a signature for ..hairs of the mucosa” (Wood, 1997)

It is hard to draw clear themes for this family. Demulcent properties are widespread, but usually just form a minor part of the indications for any one herb in this family.   Medicinally, these plants are astringent, good internally as tea or externally as poultices for pretty much any wounds or excretions that need an astringent to tighten up the tissues. A few members of the family are mucilaginous, useful for their emollient properties. Some contain volatile oils and may serve as an antidote to poisons by functioning as diaphoretics. Many members of this family have irritating hairs that may cause dermatitis on some individuals. Also, several plants contain minute amounts of poisonous alkaloids (as mentioned above), making them toxic when used long term or in high doses.

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Lungwort has gorgeous flowers and white spotted leaves

Symphytum officinale and Borago officinalis are undoubtedly the two most commonly used in the UK – I know I use both regularly in my clinic.  Symphytum has a very strong tradition for promoting healing in damaged tissue, particularly after sprains, fractures and wounds, but also for internal treatment of ulcerated tissue.  Its common name is knitbone as it is an excellent herb for speeding the rate of mitosis (cell division) increasing the speed of healing.  Here is a youtube video of an American herbalist David Hoffman discussing the properties of Comfrey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szRvmxzEwbI

comfrey (9)

There has been controversy regarding the use of comfrey internally.  The use of the root internally has stopped in mainstream herbalism although the leaf is still used internally.  The controversy is regarding the relatively high levels of hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids – there was a case where a man developed liver failure after using comfrey, but.. when you look at the case he was drinking excessive amounts of comfrey root tea internally over an extended period.  This said, even as a herbalist I allow the people who I prescribe comfrey leaf to internally a break to allow the liver to recuperate prior to re-prescribing again.  I have cooked and eaten the young comfrey shoots. They are great to harvest at this time of the year and they can be treated and eaten like asparagus or mixed in salads. Young leaves make an excellent vegetable or can be added to soups and stews.

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Borago officinalis is most often used by herbalists as an adrenal tonic, it is a great herb to increase a person’s courage, lift their mood and reduce mild depression.  An infusion (2 tsp per cup, allow to stand for 10 mins) can be taken 2 times a day for rheumatic conditions, pleurisy and affections of the mucous membranes.  Old recipes recommend a concoction of flowers soaked in wine and drunk for melancholy and depression.  Young leaves make a fine addition to salads and lend them a pleasant cucumber like flavour. They can also be treated like spinach. The flower corolla can be used to colour vinegar blue.

Lithospermum officinale was traditionally used for treatment of kidney stones. Other members of the Lithospermum genus have traditionally been used as contraceptives. Laboratory experiments have confirmed that Lithospermum ruderale has a marked contraceptive effect.  Pulmonaria officinalis, as the name suggests, was traditionally used for lung complaints, particularly tuberculosis.  Fruits of the southern African Boraginaceae species are edible, but not very tasty. Some species are browsed by game. A tea is made from the dried leaves, stalks and berries of Ehretia rigida subsp. nervifolia. Dried, ground root powder mixed with cold water is used for diarrhoea (Trichodesma angustifolia subsp. angustifolia). Leaves of Lobostemon, (with pretty bell-shaped flowers) fried in sweet oil and leaf decoctions are old Cape remedies for ringworm, sores, ulcers, burns and wounds.

Oh… and forget-me-not 🙂

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This plant is not used in current herbal medicine practice but had a strong affinity for respiratory organs, especially the left lower lung. On the continent it is sometimes made into a syrup and given for pulmonary affections. There is a tradition that a decoction or juice of the plant hardens steel. The plant has astringent properties; it has been used in lotions. In traditional herbal medicine, forget-me-nots have been used to treat eye diseases.

Five petals, flat face, a yellow eye, usually blue but can be pink to white. The blossoms are added to salads as a garnish and make excellent candied blossoms. However, the plant does contain some pyrrolizidine, a chemical not to eat a lot of so use only occasionally and not to excess.

It is said that whomever wore this flower would not be forgotten by his or her lover. There are two stories that illustrate the flower’s significance among lovers and explain the common name, although both have tragic endings. In the first story, a suitor was picking this flower for his love and saw the perfect specimen. It was close to the cliff’s edge but he reached for it anyway. Losing his balance, the man plummeted over the cliff, shouting, “Forget me not!” as he fell. The second story originates in Germany. A knight and his lovely lady were walking along a riverbank. He was picking this flower for her when he tripped and fell into the river. Before he went under he threw the small bouquet to her and shouted “verges mein nicht”, the German name of the flower.

Papavaraceae family – the lovely poppies :)

The wonderful poppy family is a delightful family but one which does not occur in most places – growing everywhere but the tropical areas.  Well known in the UK as the flower of remembrance for those who gave their lives during the World Wars, I was please to hear that one of our local villages Tetney will be planting numerous poppies around the village in commemoration of the soldiers from the first world war 🙂

rememberance poppy

They are 44 genera and 760 species; mainly herbaceous perennials but can be annuals and there are even a few trees in the family.  A herbaceous perennial grows during the growing season and then all of the aerial parts die back leaving nothing to show until the next growing season.  I have strong memories of harvesting poppy seeds whilst in my junior school as they were cultivated along the borders that were outside the vicarage (which was where the school offices where).  It was a joy to find a plant which has such sensory qualities like a tiny maraca.

poppy seed heads

The poppy family is medicinally and economically important.  Only two species are of economic importance for the production of opium and its derivatives for pharmaceutical use: Papaver somniferum (the opium poppy) is cultivated legally in order to obtain morphine and other opiates, and Papaver bracteatum (Iranian poppy), for thebaine. Papaver somniferum is also the source of the poppy seeds used in cooking and baking, and poppy seed oil. The illegal cultivation of poppies in Asia for the production of opium and heroine is virtually equal to the legal production in the rest of the world.

The stunning field poppy - a wild flower around the UK countryside

The stunning field poppy – a wild flower around the UK countryside

Species with medicinal value as a herbalist include the beautiful field poppy – Papaver rhoeas, the stunning yellow/orange Californian poppy – Eschscholzia californica, Yan Hu Suo – Corydalis yanhusuo, fumitory – Fumaria officinalis, bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis and greater celandine – Chelidonium majus.  Greater celandine should not be mistake for lesser celandine which is a member of the buttercup family.  There are also a lot of ornamental poppies – I have the oriental poppy in my garden for its stunning flowers and sculptural leaves and the popular ‘bleeding hearts’ also comes from this plant family.

The Oriental poppy

The Oriental poppy

Identifying factors of the poppy family

  • The plants all contain latex, which will ooze out of split stems – it should be noted that numerous other plants from different families also have a milky latex including the spurges (milkweed) and dandelions.
  • The leaves are are arranged in an alternate pattern along the stems, they are simple in shape and usually lobed or finely divided. They are often a greyish green.
  • Flowers are often attractive. In the Poppies these are large and there is usually only one flower per stem; this isn’t the same throughout the plant family though as fumitory has smaller, irregular, tubular and occur in clusters.
  • Poppy flowers have many stamens (these are the pokey out bits of the flowers and are part of the sex organs required for pollination), although Fumitories may have as few as two. The flowers have a calyx of 2 sepals, but these tend to fall off early so may appear to be absent. They are odourless.
  • The fruit (the ovary of a plant which then contains the seeds) is a capsule containing numerous small seeds.

Medicinally the poppy family is seen as pain relieving.  The cultivation of the opium poppy for medicinal drugs such as morphine is a great example of this.  Recent studies have found that compounds in the poppy family may be the key to relieving arthritic pain too. The californian poppy also has analgesic effects.  The reason why poppies have such a physiological effect on the body is because they generally contain alkaloids.

The stunning Californian poppy

The stunning Californian poppy

The poppy family also has sedative properties, the opium poppy is again a good example of this as it is extensively cultivated for extraction of isoquinone alkaloids, both legally for their use in medicine and illegally for the production of heroin. Eschscholzia californica and Papaver rhoeas contain related alkaloids with a much gentler action. Papaver rhoeas was a major herb in UK folk medicine, particularly used to induce sleep, to calm babies and as pain relief for rheumatism, toothache, earache and neuralgia. Eschscholzia is used similarly for insomnia, restlessness and cough in children.

Members of the poppy family also have an effect on the liver and gallbladder. Both Fumaria officinalis and Chelidonium majus are used for cholecystitis and gallstones.  Both are also used as alterative cleansers for skin disorders, particularly Psoriasis. Chelidonium should only be used by qualified practitioners as it is a schedule III herb meaning that it has a very small therapeutic window and is potentially toxic in the wrong dose.

The amazing, under-appreciated organ….. The Liver

The liver is an amazing organ within the body.  It is something we abuse with excessive alcohol, medication drugs, those of you who are naughty and take illegal drugs, poor diets, too much caffeine and processed foods.

billarysystem

The liver is the largest organ in the body, second only in size to the skin, supplying the body with 25% of its total blood flow.  It is the heaviest gland of the body averaging out at about 14kg – this is roughly the weight of a staffordshire bull terrier or 7 1/2 2 litre bottles of pop.  It alters in its size and shape dependant on the amount of blood present.  Without a liver our life is reduced to about six hours and death results from multiple factors such as an accumulation of toxic metabolites in the blood stream, this is less time than if we didn’t have water or food!!  It converts glucose which is a sugar that we get from most carbohydrates in our diet into glucogen a process aided by insulin.  Today there is currently a diabetes epidemic which is due to people eating high carb high sugar foods and overloading the liver and the pancreas.  The liver can store around half the bodies sugar reserves and up to about 10% the weight of the liver, so when we need to access our energy the liver releases the glucogen to be used as fuel for the muscles.

liver anatomy

Anatomically it sits just below the diaphragm and is situated on the right hand side of the body.  The liver can be felt under the rib cage in slim people or when the liver has enlarged due to health issues such as fatty liver disease..  It is suspended in the cavity from the diaphragm by ligaments.  The liver tissue is made up of liver cells (hepatocytes), small canals (bile canaliculi) and blood capillaries (hepatic sinusoids).  Histologically, the liver can be described as having 2 vascular trees (portal and hepatic) within it, the branches close but not touching each other.

liver

The Liver Cells (Hepatocytes):

hepatocytes

These liver cells perform numerous metabolic, secretary and endocrine functions so they have an impact on how we burn our energy (therefore how easily/hard we gain/lose weight), they also deal with all of the hormones in our body as well as making hormones itself.  They are specialized cells with 5 to 12 sides and they make up 80% of the volume of the liver.  They contain more rough and smooth endoplasmic reticular, mitochondria and lysosomes are more abundant than most other cells within the body – this means that there are more power houses for producing energy within the liver than anywhere else.  Alcohol or drug abuse increases the number of enzymes within the hepatocytes this is know as induction and is a process to help keep up with the excessive amount of poison that people chuck into their bodies.

Hepatocytes are arranged into complex plates called hepatic laminae which are one cell thick and are highly branched.  Hepatocytes are lined by vascular spaces called hepatic sinusoids with grooves in their membrane for the canaliculi to secrete bile into.

When stressed, the cortex of the adrenal gland releases cortisone and hydrocortisone (the stress hormones) which stimulates gluconeogenisis by the liver, a sympathetic response, inducing the liver to breakdown glycogen (sugars) by hepatocytes and produces a surge of glucose into the blood which is ultimately the fight or flight response.

love your liver

Conjucation is the process where hepatocytes create compounds which can be excreted via the bilary system, so the liver also plays an important process when it comes to digesting food and accessing certain nutrients.  Unborn babies don’t have conjucating enzymes in their livers and so their unconjucated bilirubin diffuses through the placenta and is taken up by the mother for excretion.  Premature babies are frequently jaundiced (have yellow coloured skin) because the conjucating enzymes develop a few days prior the birth, late in the third trimester and therefore they do not have this ability.

Canals in the liver (Bile canaliculi):

bile caniculi

These are small canals in branched structures lining the grooves of the hepatocytes that assist digestion with the absorption of food and the excretory process.  The secretion of bile salts only occurs within the liver – these have a detergent action emulsifying fats so that we can access their nutrition.

Blood capillaries within the liver (Hepatic sinusoids):

hepatic sinusoids

These are highly permeable capillaries in branched structures between the hepatocytes.  They receive two blood supplies, via the hepatic artery they receive oxygenated blood (red blood) and via the hepatic portal vein they receive nutrient rich deoxygenated blood (blue blood) from the gastrointestinal organs and the spleen.

Kupffer cells are located within the hepatic sinusoids, they are part of the immune system and are fixed white blood cells which destroy old blood cells, bacteria and other particles in the venous blood draining from the gastrointestinal tract.  Old haemoglobin (red blood cells) are recycled by cells within the liver, the central iron particle is stored for reuse within the liver and the haem (the red transporter of the iron molecule) is converted into bilirubin – a large amount of bilirubin in the blood stream causes jaundice.

Functions of the Liver:

love your liver 1

The liver does so much for us and yet we do take it for granted.  Liver disease and abuse can cause life threatening problems which can greatly shorten our life expectancy.  Here is a list of what the liver does for us on a daily basis for our entire lives.

  • carbohydrate metabolism, the assimilation of sugars within the body – glucose levels
  • regeneration – creating new liver cells if we really abused our liver
  • lipid metabolism – the assimilation of fats within the body
  • protein metabolism – making, storing and breaking down proteins (meat, fish, eggs, pulses etc)
  • processing drugs and hormones – endocrine function either reacts with or destroys most hormones – detoxification
  • excretion of bilirubin
  • sodium metabolism – the assimilation of salt from our diet
  • in fetus’ and new born babies the liver produces red blood cells (erythropoiesis)
  • synthesis of bile salts
  • storage of: glycogen, Vitamins A, B12, D, E and K, iron, copper
  • kupffer cells kill/recycle aged cells and pathogens (any germs) this is known as phargocytosis
  • activation of Vitamin D
  • processing all of the blood within the body
  • regulation of blood clotting

As you can see the liver is essential to our health and wellbeing.  I sell herbal capsules on my website: http://www.herbsforhealthandwellbeing.co.uk where you can purchase Milk Thistle and give you liver some tender loving care.

milk thistle

References:

Homer Andrews, W.H. (1979) Liver. Edward Arnold Publishers Limited

Kumar, P. Clark, M. (2009) Clinical Medicine 7th Edition. Elsevier Limited

Tortora, G. Dickenson, B. (2009) Principles of Anatomy and Physiology 12th Edition. John Wiley & Sons Ltd