Your liver sits in the right portion of your abdominal cavity. This large glandular organ performs many vital functions. When it becomes damaged from disease, chemical abuse or infection and cannot work properly, it affects nearly every part of your body from digestion to the health of your skin. Liver damage can cause several types of skin discoloration.
Your liver produces the majority of your body's cholesterol, a substance needed for the production of hormones and to add stability to cell membranes. Your liver also stores vitamins and minerals, converts glucose into glycogen to store energy for later use and makes amino acids needed to build proteins. Your liver produces bile -- a substance consisting of bile salts, electrolytes, water, cholesterol and bilirubin -- and secretes it to the small intestine where it helps break down and process dietary fat. Your liver continually filters all the blood in your body and removes toxins and waste products from the blood.
Because your liver performs such a wide range of functions, many factors can cause liver damage and affect these functions. Viral infections, such as the group of hepatitis viruses, cause inflammation of the liver that can interfere with its function. Some strains of the hepatitis virus, including hepatitis B and C, can cause chronic infections that can lead to the buildup of scar tissue known as cirrhosis of the liver or to liver cancer. Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, taking certain prescription medications or ingesting illegal drugs causes liver damage that can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver function impairment.
Your blood contains millions of red blood cells in every drop. The red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that binds to oxygen and contains pigments that give the cells their color. After about 120 days, the red cells wear out, die off and release a yellowish pigment known as bilirubin. As blood filters through your liver, an enzyme in the liver breaks down the bilirubin, removes it from the blood and excretes it from the body with the bile. Damage to the liver that causes chronic inflammation of the liver cells or promotes the buildup of scar tissue can interfere with the liver's ability to process bilirubin and produce bile. This allows bilirubin to accumulate in the blood, causing a yellowish discoloration of your skin known as jaundice.
The role your liver plays in digestion, the conversion of foods into energy and the removal of toxins from your blood also affects the health of your skin. Without bile, your body cannot breakdown dietary fat. This can lead to a slow metabolism and cause patches of itchy, dry white skin. Liver damage inhibits the removal of toxins from the blood. As these toxins build up, they can cause your skin to become red, dry and inflamed.
Many people develop brown or gray spots on their skin, especially on the hands, face or shoulders, as they age. Although they're commonly referred to as liver spots, these spots are not related to liver function or liver damage. These spots occur as a result of years of exposure to ultraviolet light, like the rays of the sun, that causes the pigment in your skin -- melatonin -- to clump together and form the spots.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Heptatis; July 2011
- Mayoclinic.com; Liver Problems; April 2011
- MedlinePlus; Jaundice; October 2010
- University of Maryland Medical Center; Liver Disease; February 2008
- Mayoclinic.com; Liver Spots; February 2011
- National Skin Care Institute; Skin Care May Be Affected By Your Liver Function; April 2006