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A very important gland of the animal body is the liver. It is essential in the processes of digestion, absorption, metabolism and storage of most nutrients. It is also responsible for detoxification, catabolism and excretion of many toxins, hormones and xenobiotics. The liver is a key metabolic organ and it will certainly not be wrong to call it a “second heart”. One of the liver’s main tasks is to produce bile, which flows to the duodenum and is involved there in preparing fats for enzymatic digestion.
Due to its key role in the metabolism of the entire organism, the liver has a very strong influence on animal health and productivity. It determines the utilisation of feed and the production of milk and meat. Optimal functioning of this gland is therefore very important.
However, the liver is exposed to many toxic factors, as well as factors associated with intensive metabolism in high-yielding animals. It is damaged by a variety of factors, including poor nutrition and food poisoning. On the other hand, hepatic cell-sheltering agents are also known to have hepatoprotective properties, i.e. to prevent liver damage.
Nutrition has an extremely important role in liver function and abnormalities in this area are in many cases the cause of liver degeneration or necrosis. Bacterial and fungal toxins (mycotoxins), pesticides, heavy metals and other xenobiotics from the digestive tract reach the liver via the bloodstream. Liver cells show a remarkable ability to detoxify the various toxins in the feed. However, they can damage the liver before they are destroyed in the detoxification process. The effect of toxic agents is degeneration and necrosis of liver cells. The above situation can arise against a background of fatty liver syndrome. A severe degree of steatosis can occur in up to 30% of high-yielding cows mainly in transition period. Liver steatosis is a disease with a multifactorial effect. It causes a decrease in general immunity and predisposes to inflammation of the udder, uterus and lungs. In addition, it promotes the occurrence of metabolic disorders and causes infertility and an increase in sterility of up to approximately 40%.
When discussing the causes of hepatic steatosis, it should be noted that excess energy in the feed ration during dry period and a negative energy balance after parturition are important. After parturition, milk production increases rapidly and feed intake is low in the first postpartum period. During this period, there is a negative energy balance, significant lipolysis of adipose tissue occurs and large amounts of free fatty acids are released into the blood. The consequences of this problem are ketosis, milk fever, hypocalcaemia, retention, retained placenta, metritis, and mastitis.
There are many examples of the beneficial effects of nutrition on liver function and regeneration. The main objectives of nutritional interventions to support liver function are, first of all, to provide all the essential nutrients needed to cover nutritional and production needs and specific substances to support liver function.
Methionine is thought to play a special role in protecting liver tissue from fat infiltration, but choline is thought to be the most important factor. An increase in the dietary concentration of vitamin E and selenium increases the liver’s resistance to oxidative stress, which reduces the risk of liver dysfunction.
Natural substances contained in raw plants can be important in the prevention of liver function problems. Many preparations consisting of one or several plants with hepatoprotective effects are known worldwide. More than 100 different plants are used in their production. The active substances contained in these plants have a beneficial effect on liver function, increasing bile secretion, regulating glycogen synthesis and enhancing the detoxification function of this gland. In addition, they have a beneficial effect on the function of the heart, spleen and kidneys.
There are various techniques to eliminate the negative effects of mycotoxins directly in the digestive tract or liver of the animal, such as adsorption, detoxification or biotransformation. Commercially available formulations are usually clay-based or use a combination of clay with specific microorganisms and/or enzymes that convert toxic compounds into non-toxic or less toxic ones, and very often contain immunomodulators. Extracts containing flavonolignans and biogenic amines are becoming a common active ingredient of feeds. Silymarin indirectly enhances the regeneration processes of liver cells – hepatocytes, reduces the level of free radicals and prevents the degradation of the structure of cell membranes by lowering the concentration of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, and at the same time increases the level of glutathione in the liver. The active effect of silymarin in the protection of the liver against the harmful effects of mycotoxins, ethanol and methanol has been found, while at the same time having anti-inflammatory and diastolic effects, which is particularly useful in a modern high concentrated feed mixtures farming. In addition, it has a natural and long-lasting lipotropic effect (regulation improvement of fat metabolism), hepatoprotective (protecting the liver parenchyma) – intensifying hepatic transformations.
Multicomponent herbal preparations that support proper liver function are used in practical animal nutrition. By having a positive effect on the liver, especially in high-yielding animals, they have a positive impact on production results. The effectiveness of such preparations is particularly high when there is a high load on the liver (high-yielding animals) and when feed contains anti-nutritional compounds and toxins, especially mycotoxins, which are very dangerous to the liver.