2 Little Known Facts About Liver Issues

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2 Little Known Facts About Liver Issues
Jul 13, 2021

The liver is often touted as a multi-tasking, hardworking organ that performs various processes that support digestion, detoxification, metabolism, immunity, nutrient storage, as well as other physiological functions1. Because this important organ is involved in so many crucial biological processes, protecting the liver is a priority.

In this article, we reveal two little known facts about liver issues. Inflammation, fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis are conditions that affect the liver. Although these conditions may be attributed to different causes, did you know that these liver conditions share two common underlying factors? In fact, scientists assert that liver health hangs in the balance of these two factors:

  • Oxidative Stress; and
  • Mitochondrial Dysfunction.

What triggers these factors, how do they impact the liver, and (most importantly) what can we do? Read on to find out!

2 Little Known Facts About Liver Issues

Fact #1: Chronic Oxidative Stress Damages the Liver

What is oxidative stress?Oxidative stress is a state of imbalance within the antioxidant system where reactive oxygen species overwhelms antioxidant capacity

Oxidative stress is a state of imbalance within our body’s inbuilt antioxidant system. It occurs when the equilibrium between reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation and the body’s free-radical-scavenging capacity is disrupted. Generation of ROS is a normal physiological mechanism. The problem arises when excessive levels of ROS overwhelm the body’s antioxidant system, damaging and modifying tissues and cells – which can eventually lead to cell death.

How does oxidative stress affect the liver?

Regardless of the cause, chronic liver disorders almost always involve oxidative stress2,3. Because of its many metabolic functions, the liver is highly susceptible to oxidative stress. The liver has an inbuilt antioxidant defence system that maintains a fine balance between ROS and antioxidant molecules. When excessive ROS levels cannot be counterbalanced, oxidative stress within the liver exacerbates progression of liver damage. This is because oxidative stress damages cell components - lipids, proteins, and DNA - in the liver which can trigger liver cell death and amplify inflammation. Excessive ROS can also trigger cell signals which initiates liver fibrosis, changing the normal architecture of the liver, ultimately altering liver function.

What eliminates or minimises oxidative stress?

Long answer short: antioxidants! The inbuilt antioxidant system within our cells uses antioxidant molecules to inactive ROS or prevent their negative effects. Some of these antioxidants are synthesised endogenously by the body; diet is the main exogenous antioxidant source. When antioxidant capacity decreases, levels of inactivated ROS increases. There are two types of antioxidants:

  • Non-enzymatic antioxidants: ascorbic acid (vitamin C), α-tocopherol (vitamin E), glutathione (GSH), carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, and other antioxidants.
  • Enzymatic antioxidants: superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).

Fact #2: Mitochondrial Dysfunction is a Cause/Consequence of Chronic Liver Disorders

What are mitochondria?

Image of a cell, mitochondria within a cell, and mitochondria DNA
Image Source: NHGRI

Mitochondria are the powerhouse of cells.

As an energy-intensive organ, the liver is extremely rich in mitochondria. Most, if not all, liver functions require energy – which is generated by mitochondria. These organelles are specialised structures within cells that provide energy for metabolic activities. Although occurrence and progression of liver diseases can be attributed to different factors, scientists have discovered a common link in most chronic liver diseases – mitochondrial dysfunction4.

Mitochondria are not just the powerhouse of cells but also the mediator of cell death – they can determine whether a hepatocyte (liver cell) lives or dies!

How does mitochondrial dysfunction affect the liver?

Mitochondrial dysfunction plays a complex role in liver disorders – acting as a cause and/or consequence of liver disease progression5. Dysfunctional liver mitochondria results in energy shortage required for liver functions and processes, excessive production and leakage of damaging ROS, and excessive lipid accumulation which may escalate to liver inflammation and liver cell death4,6.

A hepatocyte (liver cell) can contain as many as 500 to 4000 mitochondria7!

What causes mitochondrial dysfunction?

During energy metabolism, ROS are naturally generated within mitochondria as undesirable by-products. Under healthy circumstances, the antioxidant defence system kicks in to neutralise any undesirable ROS – protecting surrounding cells and components. As mitochondria are the major source of ROS in the liver, many researchers believe initiation of oxidative stress begins within mitochondria where ROS-induced mitochondrial damage results in mitochondrial dysfunction.
Accumulated mitochondrial DNA mutations affects normal mitochondrial metabolism which triggers excessive ROS production and subsequently accelerates further mitochondrial DNA mutation and damage.
90% of alcohol (ethanol) is metabolised in the liver. Mitochondrial dysfunction is often observed in early stages of alcohol-induced liver damage. Alcohol consumption can damage mitochondrial DNA, deplete antioxidant capacity, increase ROS, and induce oxidative stress.

High-fat, high-sucrose diets have been shown to decrease liver mitochondrial content and mitochondria DNA levels, increase oxidative stress, and hinder energy production within cells – all of which can contribute to mitochondria dysfunction.


Practical Pointers

Reducing oxidative stress and maintaining healthy mitochondrial functions may help prevent, reverse, or halt progression of various liver disorders.Practical pointers to manage oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction


  • Aerobic exercise may stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis;
  • Endurance exercise and reduced caloric intake may increase mitochondria proliferation and function.

Dietary strategies:

  • Increasing polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants can help eliminate or minimise oxidative stress and prevent mitochondrial dysfunction.

Supplement wisely:


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Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational enlightenment and is not designed to diagnose, treat, or cure. Every individual is unique – if you have any health concerns, do discuss them with a medical or health professional.


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