Can the liver regenerate itself in older people?
What does the liver do?
The liver is a vital organ, and a hard-working part of the body. It is a bit like a factory, with many important jobs in processing, manufacturing, and storing, all in one place. During digestion, it helps break down fats, cholesterol, and keeps glucose in balance. It also detoxifies substances after they are absorbed in the intestine, processes viruses and bacteria, recycles dead cells, stores vitamins and minerals and helps to make hormones.
Part of the detoxifying ability of the liver is through its production of antioxidants and enzymes. With natural aging, there is a natural decline in the activity of liver tissues and in their antioxidant and enzyme production . This means a loss of antioxidant protection inside and more potential for liver cell damage.
What is liver regeneration?
One of the most amazing abilities of the liver is its potential for regeneration (new tissue growth). It has been known for decades that after removing up to a 60% of the liver during surgery, the remaining part restores its function after several weeks and can grow back completely after 6-12months .
This is due to the rapid growth of liver cells (hepatocytes). Even though hepatocytes are replaced every day, they can be damaged by toxins such as alcohol, certain drugs, toxic substances, and viruses. The dead cells release their enzymes into the blood, and this is used as an indicator of liver damage on a blood test.
Age-related changes in liver regeneration
Liver regeneration occurs whenever this is liver damage unless it is too extensive. Liver disease, especially later in life, may limit the liver’s ability to regenerate completely. So instead, the liver starts to make scar tissue (cirrhosis). In most cases, the impacts on the liver are progressive over time, and can be reversed.
Ageing liver cells gradually lose their functional activity , and this is believed to affect their ability to regenerate effectively.
Alcohol and fatty liver
Alcohol is broken down in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). But the alcohol itself has the potential to injure or kill hepatocytes as well, because alcohol is a toxin. Drinking alcohol with food prevents the full effect of alcohol exposure on the liver, so it minimizes the impact. Also, moderating the amount of alcohol if you drink, as recommended by health authorities , can help to match the rate at which the liver can break it down, which also reduces exposure.
However, over-consumption beyond this, especially on a regular basis, can increase the risk of liver damage and cirrhosis. This leads to loss of liver function  and problems such as a loss of its ability to process fats, resulting in excess fat in the liver (also called alcoholic fatty liver disease, AFLD).
Fatty liver can also be caused by other factors, and these are grouped as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Factors include high-level consumption of foods high in saturated fats, such as fried food, untrimmed meats and foods containing large amounts of animal fats and oils. Also, weight increases and increases in body fat, due to overconsumption of sugary foods and soft drinks, for example, can contribute to liver and cardiovascular problems.
Natural options for combatting liver problems with age
Some natural products have been incorporated in traditional diets for centuries, such as schizandra berry , artichoke [6, 7], milk thistle , turmeric  and dandelion, owing to their observed effects in helping with liver detoxification and regeneration.
A common scenario can be seen, where making sure to adopt a healthy, naturally derived diet and lifestyle choices every day can contribute to preventing liver damage. Preserving the liver’s natural ability to regenerate on a routine basis may help ensure that it continues to work effectively over time, in the event that it is impacted by future health issues.
- Bellanti, F. and G. Vendemiale, The Aging Liver: Redox Biology and Liver Regeneration. Antioxid Redox Signal., 2021. 35(10): p. 832-847. doi: 10.1089/ars.2021.0048. Epub 2021 May 11.
- Chen, M.F., T.L. Hwang, and C.F. Hung, Human liver regeneration after major hepatectomy. A study of liver volume by computed tomography. Ann Surg., 1991. 213(3): p. 227-9. doi: 10.1097/00000658-199103000-00008.
- Cieslak, K.P., et al., Liver function declines with increased age. HPB (Oxford). 2016. 18(8): p. 691-6. doi: 10.1016/j.hpb.2016.05.011. Epub 2016 Jun 20.
- Li, X., et al., Schisandrol B promotes liver regeneration after partial hepatectomy in mice. Eur J Pharmacol., 2018. 818:96-102.(doi): p. 10.1016/j.ejphar.2017.10.044. Epub 2017 Oct 21.
- Lee, M., et al., Artichoke Extract Directly Suppresses Inflammation and Apoptosis in Hepatocytes During the Development of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. J Med Food., 2021. 24(10): p. 1058-1067. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2021.K.0069. Epub 2021 Sep 29.
- Panahi, Y., et al., Efficacy of artichoke leaf extract in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: A pilot double-blind randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res., 2018. 32(7): p. 1382-1387. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6073. Epub 2018 Mar 9.
- Jiang, G., et al., Hepatoprotective mechanism of Silybum marianum on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease based on network pharmacology and experimental verification. Bioengineered., 2022. 13(3): p. 5216-5235. doi: 10.1080/21655979.2022.2037374.
- Panahi, Y., et al., Efficacy and Safety of Phytosomal Curcumin in Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Drug Res (Stuttg). 2017. 67(4): p. 244-251. doi: 10.1055/s-0043-100019. Epub 2017 Feb 3.