Are Natural Remedies Better for Your Liver?


Milk thistle is a flowering herb native to the Mediterranean region.

Between an unusually warm, sunny weekend in Seattle and celebratory barbecues, I may have enjoyed some alcoholic beverages, causing me to think, “oh, my poor liver” after a few glasses of wine and too much sun. I’m aware of what excessive alcohol intake can do, which is why I try to never have more than three alcoholic beverages on a festive occasion. But you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that everyday medications, vitamins and dietary supplements can be just as much as a problem as alcohol.

The National Institutes of Health reports drug-induced liver injury is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the United States, accounting for at least half of cases. For example, too much acetaminophen (the active ingredient in medications such as Tylenol) can damage your liver if you take too much at once or continuously over several days. Regular consumption of alcoholic beverages puts you at a higher risk of developing severe liver damage from acetaminophen. If you enjoy festive beverages on a sunny day like I do, be careful with your use of acetaminophen. With this in mind, you may turn to natural cures for what ails you, but this isn’t always the best option either.

“With the popularity of complementary and alternative medicines, people need to be informed about what they’re taking and be aware of drug interactions,” said hepatologist and liver health expert Asma Siddique, MD. “Natural does not mean free of side effects, so you should speak with your doctor before starting to take something new.”

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is a great source of information. Some natural, but potentially toxic, supplements from the website include:

Comfrey tea was once used to treat a variety of ailments: upset stomach, ulcers, heavy menstrual periods, diarrhea, bloody urine, persistent cough and sore throat. However, comfrey contains toxic substances that can cause severe liver damage and possibly even death when ingested and should never be taken orally. As a topical remedy, studies have shown that comfrey creams have mild analgesic effects and decrease muscle and joint pain.

Fans of chaparral, a desert herb from the Southwest, believe it can help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, aid congestion, increase urine elimination, and slow the aging process and detox the body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cautioned against the internal use of chaparral since it can cause irreversible, life-threatening liver and kidney damage.

Ma Huang
Also known as ephedra, this plant’s active ingredient is ephedrine, which makes it a popular supplement. It is thought to increase mental acuity, improve sexual performance, increase circulation and decrease weight. It is also used to help with the symptoms of colds and allergies. Its negative side effects include nervousness, anxiety, palpitations, tachycardia, gastrointestinal upset, nausea, diarrhea, headache and dizziness. In 2004, the FDA banned the U.S. sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra.

Jin Bu Huan
Jin Bu Huan is a Chinese herb used as a mild sedative and analgesic. It’s been used to treat insomnia, arthritic and orthopedic pain, and stomach woes. It has also been implicated in more than a dozen cases of acute liver injury.

Cascara plant is a popular dietary supplement for constipation. Although it’s generally safe to use, liver injury can occur when the herb is used in high doses or for longer than recommended.

A popular supplement to treat anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and muscle fatigue, but the Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning that kava supplements have been linked to a risk of severe liver damage.

Green Tea Extract
Green tea is a common drink enjoyed safely by many hot beverage drinkers, but stronger green tea extract has been implicated in cases of liver injury. Although liver injury from green tea is rare, side effects of high doses of green tea extract include headache, dizziness and nausea.

Not all natural remedies will leave you with a damaged liver. For example, milk thistle may benefit the liver by protecting and promoting the growth of liver cells, fighting oxidation (a chemical process that can damage cells) and inhibiting inflammation. But in the end, the moral of this blog article is: If you use any supplements, it is best to do so under the guidance of a medical professional so you don’t do your liver harm.

Dr. Siddique will be speaking about how drugs, alcohol, diabetes and family history impact liver health, and what you can do to prevent and treat common liver diseases at “Love Your Liver: Prevention and Treatment,” a patient education event at Virginia Mason Lynnwood Monday, June 3, from 6 to 7 p.m.  For more information about this event, call (206) 341-1456.