The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It weighs just over 1 kg. It sits under your ribs on the right side of your body.
The liver is a complex organ that works 24 hours a day. Here are some of the many things your liver does.
Cleanses your blood: The liver breaks down alcohol and other drugs and chemicals. It gets rid of poisons from your body. It removes bilirubin, a colouring made from breaking down a chemical (haemoglobin) in red blood cells.
Controls your supply of body fuel: The liver makes, stores and supplies quick energy (glucose). It makes, stores and exports fat.
Produces many essential body proteins: These proteins are necessary to carry substances in the blood, clot the blood, and fight off infections.
Controls the balance of hormones: These include the sex hormones, thyroid hormones, cortisone and other hormones that drive the metabolism.
Controls your body’s cholesterol: The liver makes cholesterol, passes it out and converts it to other essential substances.
Stores essential vitamins and minerals: These include iron, copper and some vitamins like A, D K and B12.
Produces bile: Bile is a yellow-green liquid that is put out from the liver, stored in the gallbladder and passes into the small intestine to help digest food by breaking down fat.
What can go wrong with the liver?
Because its job is to clean the body, the liver is always working hard. It’s exposed to the gut, poisons in food or alcohol, and bacteria and viruses.
This continual exposure can cause inflammation. Eventually, the liver can stop working so well. As it constantly tries to repair itself, the liver tissue gradually gets thicker, or scarred.
There are lots of conditions that can affect the liver. They range from mild to serious and even life threatening. In adults, the most common problems are:
- Fatty liver disease – when there is too much fat in the liver cells, stopping the liver from working properly
- Cirrhosis – scarring and damage to the liver
- Hepatitis – inflammation of the liver
- Injury to the liver
- Liver cancer – also called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), it’s Australia’s most rapidly rising cause of death from cancer
The liver is an amazing organ. When you develop liver disease, your liver keeps on working and you might not notice any symptoms.
It will keep on working even if it’s badly damaged. Eventually, when there is too much damage, the liver can fail.
How can I protect my liver?
Every day, you make choices that affect your liver health. The food you eat, every glass of alcohol you drink and how much physical activity you do can all have positive or negative effects on your liver.
Not all liver disease can be prevented.
But there are many steps you can take to protect this vital organ and prevent liver disease as well as other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Stop or minimise alcohol intake
You might not realise it, but alcohol is a poison (toxin). When you have a glass of wine, beer, or a spirit, your liver is responsible for processing the alcohol and detoxifying (taking the poison out of) your blood.
Breaking down alcohol is only one of more than 500 vital functions your liver does. This means it can only handle so much alcohol at once. If you drink a lot, either through binge drinking or by having multiple drinks every day, you’re making your liver work overtime.
This can destroy the liver cells, cause a build-up of fat in your liver (fatty liver), or, more seriously, cause liver inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis), permanent scarring (cirrhosis) and even liver cancer.
To protect your health, the Australian Alcohol Guidelines say healthy people should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks in any 1 day. The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm.
Even after years of heavy alcohol use, the liver has a remarkabe ability to recover.
If you have liver disease, the best advice is to completely avoid or minimise drinking alcohol.
Most people know smoking damages the heart and lungs – but it’s also very bad for your liver.
Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 poisonous chemicals. Your liver is responsible for clearing poisons from the body. So when you smoke, your liver has to work overtime. Eventually this can cause damage.
Smoking affects your liver in several ways:
- You are more likely to get fatty liver disease if you smoke. Once you get the disease, smoking means you’re more likely to develop serious complications.
- People with any liver disease who smoke are more likely to develop liver damage such as fibrosis (scarring).
- Smoking gives you cancer. If you smoke, you are more likely to develop liver cancer (HCC) as well as many other cancers.
- If you smoke, you’re more likely to get really sick from cirrhosis or liver cancer.
- If you smoke, you may not be able to have a liver transplant, or you may have trouble recovering afterwards.
The kindest thing for your liver is to seek help to quit now.
Eat a healthy balanced diet
Eating a healthy balanced diet is a good way of preventing many diseases, including liver disease.
It can help you manage weight and also protect your body against type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke and cancer.
A healthy balanced diet doesn’t mean you need to eat special foods or go on a diet. It means you look at the overall picture of everything you eat and drink. Try to make healthy choices most of the time.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend:
- Be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs
- Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five groups every day:
- plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans
- grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley
- lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
- milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years)
And drink plenty of water.
- Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
- Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding.
- Care for your food; prepare and store it safely.
Some liver diseases may mean your doctor suggests you follow a special diet. You can find out more on our liver disease pages.
Drink coffee regularly if you like it
Recent research has shown that drinking coffee every day can reduce the risk of liver scarring (fibrosis), cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
It seems that drinking 2 to 4 cups a day is good for your liver. But be careful not to add too much sugar or milk to avoid the extra calories that might worsen your fatty liver disease.
Avoid other caffeine containing beverages that might make you jittery or anxious without the health benefits of coffee.
Check all medications carefully
The liver is your body’s clearinghouse for most drugs, herbal remedies, vitamins, and diet supplements.
So any chemicals that you consume – whether on purpose or by accident – can have toxic effects on your liver. Among these chemicals are drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter), industrial solvents and pollutants.
Be especially careful with paracetamol. This common pain relief medication is available in many products. Taking too much paracetamol, either accidentally or deliberately, can seriously damage the liver resulting in severe liver failure or death in both children and adults.
Make sure you inject safely
You only need a tiny amount of infected blood to get into your body to get hepatitis B or C. It can be on any drug equipment, including syringes, spoons, filters, water or tourniquets.
To protect your liver:
- use a new syringe every time
- don’t share a spoon or water
- use a clean tourniquet
- if someone helps you inject, make sure they wash their hands
Be careful when getting piercings and other body art
Body art, piercings, painted nails and toes are all great ways of expressing yourself – but you might not realise they also carry some risk for the liver.
Tools that aren’t sterilised properly, reused needles or contaminated inks could expose you to hepatitis B or hepatitis C – viruses in the blood that can cause severe and potentially fatal liver disease.
To protect your liver, check with the staff that all tools are properly sterilised in an autoclave machine between each client. Staff should always wear surgical gloves whenever there is a possibility of contact with blood or body fluids.
Practise safe sex
Hepatitis B is a liver disease that can be caught through sex with an infected person.
To lower the risk of catching hepatitis B during sexual activity, you can take the following precautions:
- get vaccinated against hepatitis B
- practise safer sex by using a condom during vaginal, oral or anal sex
- if you suspect that you or your partner may have been exposed to hepatitis B, contact your doctor right away.
Take care when travelling
Before you go overseas, check with your doctor whether you need to be immunised for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, or other diseases such as yellow fever. Many vaccinations take time to become effective.
While you’re away, protect yourself against hepatitis A. Make sure you drink safe water (use purified or boiled water for drinking, making ice cubes, brushing teeth, washing food, etc).
It’s a good idea to only eat freshly cooked foods and avoid salads and fruit you can’t peel yourself.
Wash your hands carefully and keep hand sanitisers nearby.
What now?Read common myths about the liver Read about liver diseases Read about living well
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. Leading cause of premature mortality in Australia fact sheet: liver disease. Cat. no. PHE 199. Canberra: AIHW
Mihaila M et al. 2020. Chapter 5: Liver Inflammation: Short Uptodate. In: Radu-Ionita F et al. (eds). Liver diseases: a multidisciplinary textbook. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp 53–64.
Morini S et al. 2020. Chapter 1: Anatomy and Embryology of the Liver. In: Radu-Ionita F et al. (eds). Liver diseases: a multidisciplinary textbook. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp 3–16
Kennedy OJ, Fallowfield JA, Poole R, Hayes PC, Parkes J, Roderick PJ. All coffee types decrease the risk of adverse clinical outcomes in chronic liver disease: a UK Biobank study. BMC Public Health. 2021 Jun 22;21(1):970. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10991-7
Marti-Aguado D, Clemente-Sanchez A, Bataller R. Cigarette smoking and liver diseases. J Hepatol. 2022 Jul;77(1):191-205.
Thomes PG, Rasineni K, Saraswathi V et al. Natural Recovery by the Liver and Other Organs after Chronic Alcohol Use. Alcohol Res. 2021 Apr 8;41(1):05. doi: 10.35946/arcr.v41.1.05. eCollection 2021.
Reviewed November 2022