The liver is a vital organ responsible for many important functions within the body. But sometimes lifestyle factors can take their toll and negatively impact liver health. The ideal intervention is to minimise these damaging habits but there are many natural supplements that can help the liver recover and maintain optimal function. In this post, we take a look at the science behind the best supplements for liver health.
- Milk Thistle (Silymarin)
- N-Acetyl Cysteine (acetylcysteine)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
- Chanca Piedra (Phyllanthus niruri)
The liver is the heaviest internal organ in the human body. It consists of four lobes and is situated to the right of the stomach below the diaphragm.
The liver mainly serves to help digest food. But it has a variety of other roles, including:
- Metabolism of toxins
- Glucose (sugar) storage
- Storage of vitamins and minerals
- Conversion of fat and protein to glucose for energy
- Production of proteins including coagulation (blood clotting) proteins
Lifestyle factors greatly influence liver health. Poor diet, steroid use, drugs: these all take their toll on the liver. Excessive alcohol consumption is a particularly common cause of liver issues.
However, this regenerated tissue is not true regeneration. Instead, it is best described as a restoration of function rather than a restoration back to the original form. But this restoration is possible from as little as 25% of the original liver1.
There are many natural supplements that help the liver regenerate and protect against liver diseases. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective.
Milk thistle is arguably the most researched and possibly the most effective supplement for liver diseases.
The active compounds in milk thistle are silybin, silydianin, and silychristin which are collectively known as silymarin. Silymarin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-fibrotic properties – all of which have benefits beyond liver health.
And there is a wealth of research supporting the positive impact on liver health of silymarin. Milk thistle has been demonstrated to help with all of the following liver complaints:
- Alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease1
- Drug-induced hepatic toxicity (including liver damage caused by chemotherapy)1,2
- Acute and chronic viral hepatitis1
- Liver tumors and cancer1,2,3
What’s more, milk thistle has been shown to help the liver regenerate1. And it also helps protect against the damaging effects of excessive alcohol consumption:
“One of the mechanisms of liver damage caused by alcohol is the generation of free radicals formed by the metabolism of this xenobiotic. Silymarin is an antioxidant that protects the liver from the free radical damage produced by alcohol metabolism.”
In short, there’s a reason why milk thistle has its reputation for enhancing liver health.
For mild liver complaints or a less-than-optimal lifestyle for liver health, milk thistle is likely to prevent these complaints developing into more serious illnesses. And even for more serious liver diseases, milk thistle may well be an effective adjunct to pharmaceutical drugs.
Side effects and dosage
Side effects from milk thistle are extremely rare.
The most commonly reported adverse symptoms are mild, such as:
- Stomach upset
- Joint pain
- Laxative effects
Studies have shown milk thistle to be well tolerated in dosages up to 5g per day1 – way more than is likely to be found in any over-the-counter liver supplement. Possible adverse effects may occur at dosages over 10g per day, however.
A typical dose for maintaining a healthy liver is 280mg per day1.
“Decreased zinc levels have been implicated in both acute and chronic liver disease states, and zinc deficiency has been implicated in the pathogenesis of liver diseases.”
Zinc is an essential trace element – the second most abundant in the human body after iron. And it’s necessary for a range of functions including cell division, immune health and wound healing.
The liver stores and regulates zinc throughout the body. But zinc is also needed by the liver to function correctly.
Studies have shown that alcoholic liver disease is linked with low levels of zinc. And zinc deficiency is one of the most common nutritional observations made in patients with this disease1. But supplementing zinc has been shown to counteract this deficiency and protect against these damaging effects of alcohol on the liver1,2.
It’s not just liver diseases caused by alcohol, either.
Zinc supplementation has been shown to improve both the degree of damage and long term outcomes of patients with chronic hepatitis C and liver cirrhosis1.
Side effects and dosage
Side effects from zinc are rare.
The most common side effect of zinc supplementation is nausea (feeling sick). To avoid this, it is recommended to take zinc with a meal.
A typical zinc dose for prevention of liver diseases is 50mg per day1.
N-acetyl cysteine (acetylcysteine) is another supplement that has been shown to have beneficial effects on the liver – especially for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when fat is deposited in the liver. It’s estimated that as many as one in four people in the USA have the disease1, but symptoms are such that it is not always detected.
This doesn’t mean that it can be ignored, however. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is linked with insulin resistance1 and cardiovascular diseases1. If left unchecked, it can lead to liver cirrhosis1.
Side effects and dosage
N-acetyl cysteine can cause side effects such as rash, hypotension and shortness of breath when taken intravenously or via inhalational formulations.
However, side effects are rare and more mild when taken orally. These may include:
Studies suggest that n-acetyl cysteine can have both positive and negative effects on liver issues caused by alcohol consumption. A study in mice found it was able to protect against liver damage when taken before alcohol consumption but that it made the damage worse when taken afterwards1.
Dandelion – the bright yellow weed you dig out of your lawn – has long been used as a folk medicine.
Rich in flavonoids, vitamins and minerals, dandelion has been used in China, North America and Europe to treat a broad range of health issues.
It’s long been known to alleviate liver complaints. And there is a substantial body of evidence to suggest the healing effects of dandelion are more than just placebo.
This study describes the liver-protecting effects of dandelion in response to sodium dichromate – an environmental pollutant known to be harmful to the liver:
“These finding powerfully supports that [dandelion] was effective in the protection against sodium dichromate-induced hepatotoxicity and genotoxicity and, therefore, suggest a potential therapeutic use of this plant as an alternative medicine for patients with acute liver diseases.”
– Hepatoprotective effect of Taraxacum officinale leaf extract on sodium dichromate-induced liver injury in rats. PMID: 25270677
Similar studies in mice found dandelion successfully protected against liver damage caused by environmental toxins.
In this one, for example, dandelion protected the liver against carbon tetrachloride induced damage. And here, researchers observed that the damaging effects of a methionine- and choline-deficient diet were reduced with dandelion. They go on to suggest this is due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Dandelion also appears to be effective at reducing the harmful effects of another toxin: alcohol.
This study describes the protective properties of dandelion against alcohol induced liver damage – both in vivo and in vitro:
“the amelioration of malondialdehyde levels indicated [dandelion’s] protective effects against liver damage mediated by alcohol in vivo. These results suggest that the aqueous extract of [dandelion] root has protective action against alcohol-induced toxicity in the liver by elevating antioxidative potentials and decreasing lipid peroxidation.”
– In vitro and in vivo hepatoprotective effects of the aqueous extract from Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) root against alcohol-induced oxidative stress. PMID: 20347918
Together, these studies suggest dandelion’s widespread reputation throughout the ages for improved liver health is well warranted.
Side effects and dosage
Dandelion is also used as a mild laxative and to increase appetite. So if you’re using it to improve liver health be aware of these potential properties.
Other than that, side effects from dandelion are extremely rare.
Dandelion may cause side effects to do with digestion in some people such as an upset stomach or heartburn. Also, if you are allergic to ragweed and chamomile, dandelion may cause allergic symptoms to flare up.
There is no standard dandelion dosage for liver health, but a typical dose will be somewhere between 500-2000mg per day.
“Ongoing research seems to indicate that artichoke indeed have medicinal qualities. Most significant appears to be its beneficial effect on the liver. In animal studies, liquid extracts of the roots and leaves of artichoke have demonstrated an ability to protect the liver, with possibly even to help liver cells regenerate.”
Artichoke has one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any vegetable.
Unsurprisingly, artichoke is associated with a range of benefits, one of which is improved liver health.
Like N-Acetyl Cysteine, artichoke helps prevent and possibly reverse non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
In this study, 60 patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (a form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) were randomly assigned either artichoke extract or placebo. After 2 months of treatment, liver enzymes, triglycerides and cholesterol were significantly improved in the group treated with artichoke. Like any good medical trial, both the subjects and researchers were unaware (double-blind) who had received the artichoke and who had received placebo. This rules out any potential placebo effect and suggests artichoke really is an effective treatment for this liver disorder.
There is also limited evidence to suggest artichoke can protect the liver against the effects of toxins.
In this study on rats, artichoke was found to ameliorate the effects of carbon tetrachloride-induced oxidative stress. And these detoxifying effects are further supported by this case study of fluconazole related hepatotoxicity.
Side effects and dosage
Like dandelion, artichoke can cause issues for those with ragweed allergy.
But other than that, artichoke is likely to be safe when consumed in normal quantities. Reported side effects may include upset stomach, gas and diarrhea.
In the study of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis described above patients were given 2700mg of artichoke extract per day.
Phyllanthus Niruri – known as chanca piedra in Peru – is a plant from the Amazon rainforest.
It’s often touted as a natural treatment for kidney stones. In fact, chanca piedra literally translates as ‘stone breaker’. But chanca piedra is also associated with liver health too – particularly in traditional Chinese medicine1.
And there’s a fair amount of clinical evidence backing this up.
Various studies report that chanca piedra helps protect the liver against a wide range of toxins1,2,3. There is also evidence that chanca piedra can slow the progression of liver cirrhosis as effectively as milk thistle1.
And chanca piedra has also been shown to be effective for the treatment of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease:
“Sedentary lifestyle and overconsumption of high-calorie foods are the main reasons for central obesity and [non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)]. The present study provides strong evidence of the anti-NAFLD activity of [chanca piedra] in SD rats. Our optimized extract of [chanca piedra] not only supressed hepatic fat accumulation but also blocked inflammation in NAFLD rats, thus preventing fibrosis and inhibiting simple steatosis from progressing […] The anti-NAFLD effect of P. niruri is likely to result from the antioxidant activity.”
Side effects and dosage
Chanca piedra may decrease blood sugar, so patients with diabetes should keep a close eye on blood sugar levels if supplementing chanca piedra to ensure blood glucose levels don’t dip too low1.
X2 liverdex capsules contain 50mg chanca piedra extract. However, there is no recommended dosage of chanca piedra for liver health.