Liver Health Supplements: Are They Safe Or Unsafe?
- Supplements for liver health are substances that you eat or drink to supplement things like vitamins, minerals, enzymes, etc.
- Some supplements are derived from natural sources like plants. They come in a variety of forms, including pills, tonics, and powders.
- Many liver health supplements claim to detoxify and cleanse the liver. Some of these products treat liver problems, while others aggravate them.
- According to some studies, herbal substances help the liver properly metabolize food, balance hormones, and eliminate waste.
- The effectiveness of these herbal substances is debatable and not fully ascertained.
- Though certain vitamins, herbal remedies, and other natural products can be beneficial in certain dosages, it is also possible that some of these supplements can be harmful to your liver.
The liver is a vital organ located in the abdomen that performs over 500 biological tasks to promote everything from healthy skin, digestion, and detoxification to adequate energy levels. While the liver can get all its required nutrition from common dietary sources, many people choose to take liver supplements.
People who consume these products are usually guided by their faith in the benefits of liver supplements and they may not stop to consider the side effects of liver supplements. If you were to ask yourself, "Are supplements bad for the liver?" the answer is that there are supplements that affect liver enzymes, especially when the dose is incorrect and the consumer hasn't paid enough attention to the ingredients in the supplements.
As a rule, any kind of health supplements should be taken after a medical consultation, and they should be taken only if you're unable to get all the nutrients from your current diet.
It's always safer to get nutrients from regular food instead of supplements. For instance, when you consume the plant foods that facilitate liver detox, e.g. garlic, grapefruit, green tea, berries, etc, you won't need to worry about liver detox supplements' side effects.
A visit to any large pharmacy will let you see nutritional supplements labeled "liver cleanse", "liver health", or "liver detox" products. More of these can be found online; they come in the form of soft gels, capsules, and liquids, and they all make similar claims: "This product aids the body's natural detoxification process by protecting and promoting liver health."
There's some research to suggest that certain compounds in liver health supplements aid liver tissue regeneration and bring other benefits. But then again, other studies have found little or no benefit from these compounds.
There's no study to conclusively prove that supplements are more beneficial for the liver than natural foods that are rich in nutrients and antioxidants.
What are health supplements?
Herbal products, vitamins, minerals, and any product that's not marketed as a food or drug are examples of dietary supplements, also known as health supplements. Dietary supplements are taken to maintain or improve one's health.
The following are some examples of common supplement categories:
- Supplements for vitamins, minerals, and nutrition (vitamin C, iron, calcium)
- Supplements made from herbs (traditional Chinese medicine, milk thistle, ginseng)
- Supplements for athletes (protein powder, creatine, amino acids)
Herb-based liver supplements
1. Milk thistle:
This is a well-known supplement for liver health. For over 2,000 years, liver health supplements have been used to treat liver diseases. Milk thistle extract is now found in the majority of liver health products.
Milk thistle contains an active ingredient known as silymarin. Several laboratory tests have revealed that silymarin helps regenerate hepatic tissue and protects liver cells from antioxidant damage.
But human studies have differed on the benefits of milk thistle. In one such study, when researchers gave human subjects milk thistle extract, they found only a minor difference between the milk thistle group and the control group.
In another study, researchers looked at the effects of extracted milk thistle on children being treated for leukemia and got good results. They discovered that children in the milk thistle group had less liver damage than children in the control group after 28 days.
2. Artichoke leaf:
This is another popular liver health supplement ingredient. Like milk thistle, the artichoke leaf appears to have antioxidant properties. Observational studies have suggested that artichoke extract antioxidants can help preserve the liver. In an animal study, researchers discovered that artichoke leaf helped restore liver cells.
Another study discovered that artichoke leaf extract reduced markers of liver damage compared to a placebo in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
3. Dandelion root:
This can be found in a variety of liver health supplements. However, dandelion has received less research than milk thistle and artichoke leaf extracts. There has been no large-scale human research on the liver health implications of dandelion root.
According to papers published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, the dandelion root is studied for its anti-inflammatory, non-oxidant, and anti-carcinogenic properties. However, more research was required to quantify these properties.
This is a well-known food item that's considered to have very significant medicinal properties. A staple of Indian households, turmeric is used to treat inflammation, and many people take turmeric for liver health daily.
Curcumin, an active turmeric component, has been shown in studies to promote liver health in a variety of ways.
In one study, researchers discovered that consuming 3gm of turmeric every day improved liver health markers when compared to a placebo. Researchers found that the turmeric supplement significantly reduced serum alanine transaminase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) levels without any adverse reactions, implying that turmeric "may help alleviate liver disease".
However, there have also been a few reports of turmeric-induced liver injury in recent years. This emphasizes the importance of being aware of the potential side effects of herbal dietary supplements.
5. Licorice root:
This is a common natural ingredient in many liver-health supplements. In a clinical trial, researchers gave licorice root to over 350 patients with chronic Hepatitis C. Participants in the rectal extract group experienced a significant reduction in Hepatitis C symptoms when compared to the control group.
But then again, according to the National Institutes of Health, United States, excessive licorice use may be harmful due to the high levels of glycyrrhetinic acid, which is why many licorice extract supplements specify deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL).
6. Yellow dock root:
This one is a lesser-known ingredient in liver health supplements, but research has shown that it can improve liver function. It's most common in Essiac tea, a traditional blood purification formula.
Some people claim that the yellow dock root is extremely detoxifying. Researchers have also discovered that the yellow dock root has diuretic properties, which can aid in the detoxification of waste in the body.
This root increases the frequency with which you urinate. It can also increase peristalsis and mucus and water secretion in the colon, increasing the rate at which waste is eliminated from the body. The active compounds known as anthraquinones found in yellow dock root can help improve liver health.
7. Assorted ingredients:
Other studies have found that beetroot, ginger, choline, molybdenum, selenium, and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) are beneficial for the liver. Some supplements combine these and other ingredients, whereas others concentrate on high doses of a small number of compounds.
Supplement side-effects and drug interactions
One major source of concern is the possibility of harmful drug interactions between your over-the-counter or prescription medicines and your health supplements.
This can be an issue with common and potentially harmless supplements like St. John's wort. Failure to notify your doctor that you are taking St. John's wort, especially at high doses, may result in adverse events such as the accumulation of unhealthy enzymes in the liver, which may cause damage or complete liver failure.
Such harm can also be caused by a variety of sources, including dietary supplements, probiotics, multivitamins, and herbal products. Though it may be tempting to believe that these reactions are limited to exotic or unusual substances, it's possible that common and well-known supplements, too, can cause serious liver damage when combined with medication.
Therefore, supplements can harm your liver if the dosage is wrong, if they interact badly with your regular medication, or if your body reacts to any of the ingredients. This is why medical consultation is necessary.
Lower standards of safety review in supplements
The rules on disclosure of exact ingredients for these supplements are less stringent than for medicines, increasing the risk for consumers and their livers. Furthermore, the guidelines and regulations for these supplements to reach the market are more relaxed than medicines, which means they're not required to go through the same quality, safety, and effectiveness review process that prescription medicines do.
Unlike conventional drugs, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the manufacturing process for dietary supplements. The FDA cannot classify a dietary supplement as either a food or a drug.
As a result, only the manufacturer determines and reports the purity of dietary supplements to the public. The manufacturer also determines the dosage of these supplements, which is frequently lacking in scientific support or data published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
As long as the manufacturer does not make any outrageous claims about a supplement and does not market it as a food or a drug, the product can end up on store shelves with little regulatory scrutiny.
Tips to keep your liver naturally healthy
Nothing compares to the nutrient power of a well-balanced diet and the beneficial effect of exercise. Follow these tips to keep your liver in good shape:
- Reduce the amount of fat in your diet: A diet high in fried foods, sweets, and fast foods cause weight gain. Being overweight and obese raises the risk of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
- Quit smoking and avoid toxins: You should not smoke; tobacco use is harmful to the liver. Also, some insecticides, cleaning products, and aerosols contain chemicals that can harm your liver. If you must use these products, ensure that the room is well-ventilated.
- When drinking alcohol, use caution: Large amounts of beer, wine, or liquor harm liver cells and can cause cirrhosis. Limit your alcohol consumption to 1-2 glasses per day.
- Avoid long-term drug use: Your liver must break down and remove every drug you take. Chronic or improper use of drugs such as steroids and inhalants can permanently harm this organ. Illegal narcotics, such as heroin, can also badly damage the liver.
- Do not combine alcohol and medication: Combining alcohol and certain medicines can aggravate liver damage. Before taking any prescription medication, carefully read the directions. If the label warns that the combination is dangerous, avoid it.
Whether it's a medication or a dietary supplement, a drug is a drug, and it can't be taken in blind faith. Any drug can interact with another and cause a serious adverse event. For example, Ginkgo biloba, a herbal product said to improve memory, can cause severe internal bleeding when combined with ibuprofen (Motrin).
Inform your doctors about all medications you're taking, including supplements. Indeed, don't start taking any supplements without informing the doctor. If you've already started taking a supplement, and then you don't feel well, discontinue the supplement immediately and consult a doctor.
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