What does the liver do?The liver is responsible for more than 500 different bodily processes. It is so important to your life that it even has the word “live” in it. A healthy liver does a lot of essential things. Here are just some of the liver’s jobs (Vernon, 2020):
- Metabolizes nutrients from your digestive system for optimal absorption, and stores vitamins and minerals like iron and vitamin A
- Breaks down medications—whether over-the-counter, prescribed, or recreational
- Processes alcohol
- Removes toxins and dismantles old red blood cells from circulation
- Assists in maintaining blood sugar levels through glycogen production and release
- Filters the blood supply, removing ammonia, bilirubin, and other harmful substances
- Produces and stores blood cell clotting factors
- Balances cholesterol and some hormones
- Manufactures substances necessary for the immune system
What can affect your liver function?The liver is pretty good at detoxifying itself. You may have even heard that people can receive a partial liver transplant, and their livers regrow or regenerate. That regrowth speaks to the liver’s incredible ability to take care of itself to keep it functioning normally. However, certain medical conditions or environmental/lifestyle habits can hurt, and in some cases, permanently damage, the liver (Vernon, 2020). Cirrhosis is a condition that affects the liver and, in some cases, can permanently damage it. Cirrhosis causes nodules to form inside the liver and fibrosis, a form of scar tissue that is hard. When a liver becomes cirrhotic (hardened), good and bad substances get stuck in these narrowed, hardened, and closed-off pathways. They have nowhere to go. Vitamins, minerals, glycogen, blood clotting factors stay stuck inside the liver, not reaching the rest of the body to provide energy and fuel as they should. Harmful substances from medications or the by-products of bodily functions build up, and the liver can’t excrete or remove them (Sharma, 2020).Is ashwagandha good for the liver? The risk of liver disease and cirrhosis can come from many different factors, including (Sharma, 2020):
- Infections—including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and hepatitis D
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)—This is also known as obesity-related fatty liver disease, and it is increasing. About 20–30% of people in Western countries have some form of this condition. Scientists estimate that 80–90% of adults with obesity and 40–70% of children with obesity have NAFLD. NAFLD is a silent disease, with most people having no symptoms. However, this disease can progress to fibrosis, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer (Kudaravalli, 2020).
- Chemicals—Alcohol, drugs, oral medications (including over-the-counter ones—especially over-doing acetaminophen/Tylenol), IV drug use, and exposure to chemicals harmful to the liver
- Genetic and hereditary liver diseases—including blood blockages to the liver, high triglycerides, or chronically low potassium levels
- Liver cancer
What symptoms do people with liver damage have?Some people don’t show any symptoms and only discover they have a problem with their livers when they have a physical exam, scan, or blood work. Others can have many symptoms, such as (Sharma, 2020):
- An enlarged liver
- Chronic pancreatitis and gallstones
- Anemia and clotting disorders
- Kidney problems
- Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Spider veins and redness of the skin
- Finger and toenail changes
- Irregular menstruation for women; impotence in men
- Acid reflux
- Depression and exhaustion
- Poor appetite
- Feeling sweaty all the time
Are liver cleanses and detoxes safe?Liver cleanses are sold as supplements, drinks, or teas. They say they help you clean your liver from the residue of the many jobs it does. Medicinal plants have been used for treating and preventing diseases, including liver diseases, since ancient times. Most liver cleanses contain herbal plant materials. They may include the entire plant, leaves, stems, roots, or seeds. They are sourced worldwide, with many coming from India and China (Adewusi, 2010). Most people believe that “natural” liver detoxification automatically means safe and harmless, but that’s not necessarily the case (Mengual-Moreno, 2015).
What are the ingredients in a liver cleanse?Some of the herbs found in liver detoxes include: Milk thistle or silymarin is known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, liver, and heart-protective effects. Scientists continue to research this plant for liver and other health issues (Del Prete, 2012). This product is available as “Milk Thistle.” You’ll see it in almost any liver supplement, liver cleanse powder, or liver cleansing tea. Licorice root, similar to milk thistle, is known for its anti-inflammatory effects on the liver (Del Prete, 2012). This product is sold as “licorice” and is found in many different herbal products, not just liver detoxes. Phyllanthus, especially phyllanthus amarus, is used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It’s historically known to help digestive issues as an antiseptic (Del Prete, 2012). Very few supplements are sold as phyllanthus only. It is found in combination formulas, including Life Extension NAD and Gundry MD Bio-Complex. Turmeric has been tested and shows safety even at high doses (Del Prete, 2012). Turmeric can be found as a supplement, tea, and in combination supplements, powders, and teas. Betaine, usually called digestive enzymes, comes from sugar beets and may help people whose liver problems are caused by circulatory issues (Del Prete, 2012). This is sold as homocysteine or “super digestive enzymes.” Quercetin, found in apples and onions, is anti-inflammatory and helps with blood vessel-related problems of the liver (Del Prete, 2012). This product is sold on its own. Dandelion has been long described as a natural detoxing herb. Dandelion is part of many liver cleanses and other detoxifying supplements (Lis, 2019). Dandelion is available on its own, along with other herbs in supplements and formulas, and as a tea. Burdock root, similar to dandelion, is also considered by some to be a helpful detox, especially in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This product is available as a supplement by itself or in combined preparations or as a tea (Romualdo, 2020). Most liver cleanses combine all or some of these liver support ingredients into their liver detox. Others may add green tea or vitamin C.
Why liver cleanses may be dangerousThe use of herbal supplements for liver cleanses, flushes, and detoxification has increased in the US and around the world. At the same time, the rate of herbal and dietary supplement-induced injury (HDS) has increased as well. Currently, scientists from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and liver specialists estimate that 20% of liver damage is directly caused by injury from herbal and dietary supplements (Navarro, 2017, Koenig, 2021). Liver cleanses are mostly made of herbs and plants. Plant strength and quality differ because of growing environments, harvest practices, preparation, and extraction of the herbs. This means it’s hard to know the amount of potency of the herbs inside your liver detox (Del Prete, 2012). There is virtually no barrier for people to get liver detoxes. Liver cleanses and other detoxifying products can be purchased at drug stores, supermarkets, health food stores, and on the internet. People may be sensitive to some of the herbs inside liver cleanses and may not even know the quality or quantity inside. The supplement industry is not well regulated, and the FDA does not formally evaluate these products for safety and effectiveness (Mengual-Moreno, 2015). Treating HDS liver injuries can be challenging. Healthcare professionals recommend immediately stopping use of the product. Researchers are working toward improving or introducing new technologies to help with these liver injuries (Mengual-Moreno, 2015, Koenig, 2021).
Is a “liver cleanse” a real thing?The liver is your body’s largest internal organ. It’s responsible for more than 500 different functions in the body. One of these functions is detoxification and neutralizing toxins. Knowing that the liver is a detoxification organ, you might think doing a liver cleanse could help your body recover faster after a big weekend, give your body that much-needed health kick, or boost your metabolism so you can lose weight faster. That’s what all those “liver cleanses” on the market claim they can do. But truth be told, you’re likely wasting your money and could be doing your body more harm than good. The reality is that toxins are everywhere in our environment, and our bodies have the built-in capacity to defend against these toxins naturally. Of course, there are things you can do to improve your health and support healthy liver function. Keep reading to learn how certain lifestyle changes can provide the real benefits that liver cleansing claims to give.
Myth #1: Liver cleanses are necessaryMost liver cleansing products and supplements are available over the counter or even on the internet. And most, if not all, haven’t been tested in clinical trials and aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. What this means is there is absolutely no proof that liver cleanses work at all. If anything, they may actually cause harm to your system. So if you do decide to use them, proceed with extreme caution.
Fact: Some ingredients can be beneficial to your healthMilk thistle: Milk thistle is a well-known liver cleansing supplement because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It may help reduce liver inflammation. Turmeric: Turmeric has been shownTrusted Source to decrease the key pro-inflammatory molecules that contribute to the initiation, development, or worsening of diseases. It may help reduce your risk of liver disease. Due to turmeric’s low bioavailability, it’s best taken in supplement form, standardized for 95 percent curcuminoids. For supplement dosages, follow the instructions on the manufacturer’s label. Research on these supplements and others is ongoing, so talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits they may offer you before use.
Myth #2: Liver cleanses aid in weight lossThere is no evidence that liver cleanses aid in weight loss. In fact, studies have shown that certain types of cleansing diets may lower the body’s metabolic rate, which would actually slow down weight loss. By doing a liver cleanse, people may claim they lose weight. But in most cases, it’s just fluid loss. Once these people resume their usual eating habits, they often regain weight very quickly.
Fact: Some ingredients can help you lose weightThe three most important factors to help you lose weight are calorie intake, calorie use, and diet quality. Calorie intake: The recommended daily calorie intake is approximately 1,600 to 2,400 caloriesTrusted Source a day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 caloriesTrusted Source for adult men. Your doctor can provide you with a range tailored to your individual health profile. Calorie output: Exercise is necessary to burn calories and lose weight. Diet changes alone don’t work well or long term. Moving and using up calories help the body eliminate extra weight. Diet quality: While calories are important, if you’re eating a lower-calorie diet and all of those calories come from processed junk food, you may still be unable to lose weight. Processed junk food is low quality. To assist your liver in functioning at its best and to help you lose weight, choose high-quality foods instead. This includes a variety of:
- unrefined whole grains
- healthy fats, such as olive oil and nuts
- proteins, such as chicken, fish, and eggs
Myth #3: Liver cleanses protect against liver diseaseCurrently, no evidence exists to prove that liver cleanses protect against liver disease. There are more than 100 different forms of liver disease. A few common ones include:
- hepatitis A, B, and C
- alcohol-related liver disease
- non-alcohol-related liver disease