What does liver do?
All the blood leaving the stomach and intestines passes through the liver. The liver processes this blood and breaks down, balances, and creates the nutrients and also metabolizes drugs into forms that are easier to use for the rest of the body or that are nontoxic. The liver performs many essential functions, including cleaning the blood, synthesizing proteins, producing hormones, and aiding digestion. Some manufactures of liver supplements claim that their products will detoxify and rejuvenate the liver. Although the liver acts as the body’s primary detoxification and filtration system, supplement manufacturers like to suggest that the liver could use a detox of its own.
How liver supplements work?
- detoxify the liver and kidneys
- promote overall liver health
- optimize liver function
- protect liver cells from inflammation
- promote the production of bile
- increase metabolism and promote weight loss
- support respiratory and immune system function
Taking herbal and dietary supplements for any reason may do more harm than good. Available data suggest that herbal dietary supplements are responsible for 20% of liver injuries. According to a study involving the Drug-Induced Liver Injury Network (DILIN), herbal dietary supplements may cause more severe liver injuries than conventional medications. Liver injury from these supplements can contribute:
- reduced blood clotting
- abdominal swelling
- jaundice, or yellowing of skin and eyes
- encephalopathy or brain damage
Popular ingredients in liver supplements
Many liver supplements contain a combination of herbal ingredients, vitamins, and minerals.
Milk thistle, also known as silymarin, is the most common herbal supplement for liver problems in the U.S. Milk thistle extract contains approximately 50% silibinin which is the active ingredient in silymarin. Filicinin acts as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicles that contribute to inflammation. The researchers behind one 2013 study found that 7 grams per day of Epaclin, a food supplement containing silymarin, vitamin E, and amino acids, significantly lowered the levels of enzymes that doctors associate with liver damage. In a 2015 clinical trial, researchers found that 420 milligrams of silymarin taken daily for 4 weeks reduced the risk of drug-induced liver injury by 28% in people taking antituberculosis medications.
Zinc is an essential trace element that promotes cell division, DNA synthesis, and immune function. Chronic liver disease can lead to zinc deficiency. Another older 2012 study suggests that zinc supplementation may help protect the liver from oxidative stress due to hepatitis C viral infections. More research is needed, however, to support the use of zinc in treating hepatitis C or other liver diseases.
Licorice root contains an active compound called glycyrrhizic acid, which may help reduce inflammation in the liver and regenerate damaged liver cells. According to one 2016 study on rats, researchers found that raw licorice root extract reversed the effects of alcohol-induced inflammation and fat accumulation in the liver of rats. In a 2012 phase III clinical trial, 379 people with chronic hepatitis C received glycyrrhizin injections three or five times a week or five placebo injections.
Signs of liver problems:
The liver is a complex organ that performs a range of essential functions. A healthy liver removes waste from the blood, metabolizes fat, and synthesizes hormones. A damaged, diseased, or malfunctioning liver can lead to dangerous, even life threatening consequences. Hepatitis refers to self-limiting or chronic inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis most commonly occurs as a result of a viral infection. However, alcohol use, exposure to toxins, certain medications, and fat deposits in the liver can also cause hepatitis.
According to the NIDDK, some people may develop symptoms of hepatitis C in 1–3 months and of hepatitis B in 2–5 months. People who have chronic hepatitis may show no symptoms for several years.
Signs of a malfunctioning liver include:
- loss of appetite
- unintentional weight loss
- nausea and vomiting
- dark yellow urine
- gray stools
- discomfort in the upper right part of the abdomen
People who have advanced liver damage may experience:
- bleeding and bruising easily
- edema, which causes swelling in the lower legs, ankles, and feet
- fluid retention in the abdomen
- itchy skin
- jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes
- confusion or difficulty thinking
- memory loss
- personality or mood changes
How to maintain a healthy liver
There is not enough scientific evidence to fully support the use of supplements for treating or preventing liver disease. However, the following lifestyle choices can help keep the liver healthy:
Limit saturated fat intake
High levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood can create fat deposits around the liver, which may lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and long-term liver damage.
Limit alcohol use
The liver produces toxic chemicals, such as acetaldehyde, when it metabolizes alcohol. Healthcare experts define heavy alcohol use as eight or more drinks a week for females and 15 or more drinks a week for males. Heavy alcohol use can increase a person’s risk for liver disease and other chronic conditions. Consuming four to five drinks in 2 hours or less can lead to steatosis, which is a condition in which fat droplets accumulate inside liver cells. A person can reverse the effects of steatosis if they stop consuming alcohol. However, continuous binge drinking can lead to chronic steatosis and chronic liver disease.
Minimize exposure to toxins
The liver breaks down toxic substances in the blood. Exposure to environmental toxins, such as cleaning products, pesticides, and tobacco smoke, can damage the liver as it filters these substances from the blood.
Avoid chronic drug use
The liver metabolizes medications and drugs in the blood. Chronic use of illicit drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, can lead to liver inflammation and damage. Prescription and over the counter (OTC) medications can also contribute to drug induced liver injury. According to the FDA medications that can contribute to liver damage include:
- antibiotics, such as amoxicillin and erythromycin
- acetaminophen, which is an OTC pain and fever reducer
- cancer drugs, such as mercaptopurine, lapatinib, and pazopanib
- antianxiety and antidepressant medications, including duloxetine and nortriptyline
- immunosuppressants, including cyclosporine and methotrexate