As the largest single organ in our bodies and one of the most complex, the liver is very difficult to replace or replicate artificially. And while diseases that affect the liver can be treated, they can hardly be cured. So never make the mistake of ignoring this life sustaining organ until it is too late.

It's as soft as a rose petal and doctors refer to it as the chemical factory of our bodies. But while the heart gets star billing, many of us tend to completely ignore the life sustaining liver, mostly because we're not aware of how it tirelessly strives to ensure our good health. "The liver has a multitude of functions," says Dr A.R Nitin Rao, consultant gastroenterologist and a specialist in hepatopancreatobiliary surgery (treating diseases associated with the liver, pancreas and bile) at MS Ramiah Memorial Hospital, Bangalore. "It produces bile (and other enzymes) which help in digestion of food; it also aids in the storage of fats, eliminates poisonous substances from our bodies and provides us with better immunity. It is important that we take some simple steps on a daily basis to care for this organ better."

Don’t overdose: There are many ways in which we unknowingly abuse our liver but drinking excessive alcohol is just one of these. Ensuring that your alcohol intake is regulated in small doses should be the first step to maintaining a healthy liver. Also, never overdose on any medication, especially over-the-counter drugs. Many of us tend to get careless about dosage, but if you take medication often for chronic ailments, then this is something you need to approach with caution. "Every medicine you ingest is full of chemicals that are finally processed in the liver," says Dr Nitin Rao. Too many chemicals can cause the liver to harden and can result in permanent damage. "Paracetamol in particular (the most commonly prescribed fever medication) can be very damaging to your liver if taken in excessive amounts." So use medication judiciously and the next time you're tempted to pop pills for a mild head or body ache, spare a thought for the health of your liver.

Beware of a fatty liver: When you eat a diet that is rich in calories, your liver will work over-time to process all that extra fat. "While some amount of fat in the liver is normal, when it makes up more, that 5-10% of the weight of the liver, it could lead to serious complications. "An overload of iron in the diet, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption--all this can cause a fatty liver. A fatty liver is undesirable because it produces a thicker bile solution," explains Dr Prof. N. Rangabashyam, a pioneer in pancreatic hepatobiliary surgery in India and former Head of the Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Proctology, Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital, Chennai. "This can cause stones to form in the gall bladder which require surgical intervention to remove."

Avoid food traps and go green: Your diet plays an important role in keeping your liver sound, but what you don't eat is as important as what you do. "There is a species of wild mushroom that can cause liver failure immediately upon consumption," warns Dr Rao. "While button mushrooms and most other species are harmless, one must avoid mushrooms grown in the wild, because the poisonous variety can be sold unknowingly in rural areas."

"Many vegetarians don't consume enough protein," says Dr Rangabashyam. "A chronic protein deficiency can cause hardening and sclerosis of the liver, resulting in permanent damage. For instance, we tend to eat more carbohydrate rich food like idli-dosa for breakfast, accompanied by a sambhar that is devoid of vegetables. To ensure adequate protein intake, make chick-peas (sundal), dhal, and soybean a regular feature in your menu. A vegetable dish with breakfast (for instance, spinach, drumstick or ladies finger) is a must as it adds more fibre, aids digestion and prevents other complications such as constipation and piles." Traditional herbs like keezhanelli have long since been used to treat a malfunctioning liver. "These herbs are effective in enhancing liver function and can be used as a preventive aid, but studies are yet to prove that they can cure liver diseases," says Dr Rao.

Stock up on antioxidants: Foods that are rich in antioxidants are especially good for the liver. "The paan leaf (vethilai) taken plain without the supari is an excellent source of antioxidants and has a protective effect. The curry leaf is good source as well, but though it is used in cooking, it is unfortunately discarded when we consume the food. Garlic and turmeric also help enhance liver function," says Dr Rao.

Stay away from plastic: Drinking a water bottle that lies in the sun, placing food in a flimsy plastic take-away carton and reheating it at home-- plastic is a part of our daily lives. "But cheap plastic has several layers and when this melts and is consumed, it can pose a serious hazard to the health of our liver, even causing liver cancer," says Dr Rao.

Regular check-ups and vaccinations: Today, vaccinations are available to prevent two of the most dreaded liver diseases--Hepatitis A and B. These viral infections, when unchecked, can lead to severe jaundice and have the potential to destroy the liver. However there is no vaccine to provide protection against Hepatitis C, though research is ongoing. Every year, after the age of 35, doctors recommend that you take a liver function test that can help ascertain whether the liver is functioning normally. An ultrasound is also essential. "The liver has the remarkable power to regenerate itself, so no matter what abuse you have subjected it to, there exists a miraculous power of healing and restoration," says Dr Rangabashyam.