Your liver is vital to your health. When working well, the liver efficiently detoxifies chemicals and built-up metabolic waste. It also stores sugar as glycogen, breaks down old red blood cells, and produces hormones and proteins. Natural medicine can go a long way in improving liver health. Read on for a full breakdown of the best liver-protective foods and supplements.
People who have liver problems are often told to closely examine their supplements cabinet and discuss all the complementary approaches they are using with their healthcare provider. The same goes for anyone who wants to support their liver health.
Some herbs and dietary supplements are thought to be good for the liver. Limited research suggests that certain active compounds may enhance the liver’s detox power and contribute to your overall wellness. The clinical data are still weak and inconclusive.
However, supplements need to be used cautiously in people with liver disease.
Doctors know which supplements liver disease patients should avoid (as there are many supplements and foods that are bad for the liver too). When used right, herbs and supplements may be a safe complementary approach to improving liver health .
Nonetheless, dietary supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Supplements generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective.
The following natural substances have shown promise for supporting liver health in limited, low-quality clinical trials or animal studies. Additionally, some human studies look only for associations, which means that a cause-and-effect relationship can’t be established.
Therefore, there is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of the supplements listed below in the context of liver disease, and they should never replace what your doctor prescribes.
Remember to talk to your doctor before starting any new supplement or making significant changes to your diet.
Licorice has been traditionally used as food and herbal remedy. The root is thought to be liver-protective and has been tested in small clinical trials of viral hepatitis [2, 3].
The NCCIH states that: “A number of studies of licorice root in people have been published, but not enough to support the use for any specific health condition” .
There’s not enough evidence to determine whether licorice or its compounds are helpful for people with chronic hepatitis C.
In a small randomized controlled trial in patients with Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver disease (NAFLD), a water extract of licorice root decreased elevated enzyme levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) .
Water extract of licorice showed protective effects against CCl4-induced acute liver toxicity in rats. There was a dose-dependent increase in the enzyme levels as well as an increase in the total protein and albumin levels .
Licorice can reduce potassium levels. The NCCIH warns against using it in people with heart problems who are taking diuretics .
Another study suggests that fish oil, when given either parenterally (through an IV) or orally (by mouth), may be potentially helpful in patients with PNALD (Parenteral Nutrition Associated Liver Disease) .
Dietary DHA also had a protective effect in necroinflammatory liver injury in animals. Human data are needed .
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a medicinal plant that belongs to a large family of flowering plants (Asteraceae). It has been used traditionally for thousands of years as a “liver elixir” for a variety of diseases to do with liver dysfunction or gallbladder problems. Despite its long-standing use, clinical evidence about its effectiveness for these uses is lacking .
In the US, milk thistle is among the most popular herbal supplements. It’s also commonly used in other parts of the world, especially in Germany – the largest producer of milk thistle (Madaus).
Milk thistle is a good example of traditional plant uses being put to scientific scrutiny. Although over 70 low-quality human studies in total have been published, few high-quality clinical trials have investigated the health benefits of milk thistle.
Despite insufficient evidence from clinical trials, milk thistle extracts and its main active component (silybin) have been regarded as remedies for liver diseases in Europe solely based on their history of traditional use [16, 12].
The European Medicines Agency stated that although clinical evidence is weak, the effectiveness of milk thistle is “plausible” and there is evidence that this herb has been used safely in for at least 30 years .
However, the NCCIH points out that the results from clinical trials of milk thistle for liver diseases have been mixed, and two rigorously-designed studies found no benefit .
The antioxidant quercetin is sometimes called the “master flavonoid.” Its effects on liver health in humans are unknown, as most of the available evidence comes from animal experiments.
Quercetin given before toxic amounts of alcohol protected the liver of rats against oxidative stress. It neutralized harmful products of fat breakdown and increased the production of the master antioxidant Glutathione .
Quercetin protected the liver and appeared to limit damage and oxidative stress in rats exposed to toxins (aflatoxin). It also reduced liver damage from acetaminophen by neutralizing free radicals. Scientists hypothesize that it might protect both the kidneys and liver in rats by improving mitochondria health [19, 20].
Boswellia serrata extract had liver-protective effects in animals with liver damage .
In one study, rats given Boswellia extract had improved liver function .
Burdock (Articum lappa Linne) reduced liver damage caused by cadmium, acetaminophen overdose, and chronic alcohol consumption potentiated by carbon tetrachloride (CCl4) in rats. Scientists suspect it may have antioxidant and scavenging abilities [24, 25, 26, 27].
Melatonin protected the liver from methotrexate-induced oxidative injury in rats. It increased MDA (Malondialdehyde) levels, MPO (Myeloperoxidase) activity, and glutathione levels in the blood, liver, and kidney. It also seemed to protect rats on a high-fat diet from fatty liver [28, 29, 30].
In one study, melatonin injections reduced liver damage in rats with liver fibrosis. The authors said that its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fibrotic potential should be researched further .
Scientists are investigating whether it can protect liver cells against oxidative molecular damage and metabolic dysfunction by scavenging free radicals in test tubes .
Uridine supplementation normalized or reduced the abnormalities of zalcitabine-induced microvesicular steatohepatitis in mice, including mitochondrial liver toxicity .
Its effects on liver health in humans are unknown.
Grape seed extract (Vitis vinifera) protected rat livers from methotrexate-induced oxidative stress, decreased MDA (Malondialdehyde) levels, and increased the activity of SOD (superoxide dismutase) and CAT (Catalase) .
In mouse models of liver damage, andrographolide and neo andrographolide (Andrographis paniculata) reduced levels of lipid peroxidation, glutathione depletion, and enzymatic leakage, possibly through antioxidant effects [42, 43].
A choleretic effect was seen in rats and guinea pigs with paracetamol-induced liver damage .
According to one study, the standardized extract of A. paniculata with the right composition of diterpenic labdanes may be liver protective, but clinical trials are needed .
Extracts of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) relax smooth muscles and have liver-protective effects in animals .
In test tubes, rosmarinic acid is being studied for blocking hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), which are activated during liver injury and thus contribute to liver fibrosis. Other researchers wonder if this active compound can support liver health by reducing TGF-beta 1 and CTGF expression in liver fibrosis [47, 48, 49].
Limited clinical studies suggest improvement in liver function in both Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) and hepatitis C following zinc supplementation. One study suggested improved fibrosis markers in hepatitis C patients .
In a small prospective study in patients with C-viral chronic hepatitis (CH) and liver cirrhosis (LC), zinc supplementation lowered the incidence of liver complications CH and LC patients .
There’s not enough evidence to rate the effectiveness and safety of zinc supplements for these uses.
One study found that zinc deficiency is common in patients with end-stage liver disease awaiting a transplant. They suggested that, during the waiting period, oral supplementation with zinc should be provided .
Sweetheart is a plant used by herbalists in Ghana. Water decoction of sweetheart (Desmodium adscendens) showed a protective effect in rats against liver damage induced by D-galactosamine and ethanol. This effect is in part due to the presence of D-pinitol .
Milk osteopontin is suggested to have stomach protective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-steatotic actions. It hasn’t been researched in humans, though. In animals, it diminished ethanol-mediated liver injury .
Some scientists think that osteopontin acts as a protector during inflammatory liver injury. In one animal study, it was promoted the survival of liver cells during chemical injury (inhibits the activation of Nf-kb, and increases the production of TNF-αin macrophages and IL-6) .
Glycine is one of the smallest amino acids. Glycine-containing diets accelerated the process of recovery from alcohol-, drug-, and toxin-induced liver injury in animals. Researchers suggest it should be studied in people with alcoholic hepatitis [59, 60, 61].
In a study done on rats, the alcoholic extract of Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) had liver protective effects. It was synergistic with silymarin from milk thistle .
In other experiments, holy basil extracts had protective effects against oxidative stress and liver damage induced by p-hydroxybenzoic acid, antituberculosis drugs, and paracetamol in lab animals [63, 64, 65].
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) was researched for reducing acetaminophen and CCl4-induced liver damage in animal models .
Alcohol soluble part of the hot-water extract from Artemisia (A. iwayomogi) inhibited fibrosis and lipid peroxidation in rats with liver fibrosis induced by CCl4 in rats .
Oriental wormwood (A. capillaris) as “Yin Chen Hao” in Traditional Chinese medicine has been found to have liver-protective effects both in lab studies and in animal models .
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) flower extracts showed the prevention of fatty liver and hepatic inflammation in obese mice reduced damage from liver toxins and drugs like paracetamol in rats [69, 70, 71].
This herb lowered in Aspartate transaminase (AST) and Alanine transaminase (ALT) levels in diabetic rats .
There are no high-quality human studies of astragalus for any health conditions. In terms of liver health, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) was only researched in one small trial of patients with chronic viral hepatitis B [73, 74].
According to the NCCIH :
“Because of limitations in the studies, a 2013 research review on the effects of astragalus on fatty liver disease, which causes fat to build up in liver cells, couldn’t determine whether astragalus helps.”
Astragalus (total flavonoids of Astragalus) helped reduce paracetamol-induced liver damage in mice .
Flavonoids extracted from semen Astragali (SA) may help prevent rat liver fibrosis induced by chemicals .
It’s also being studied in hepatocellular carcinoma cells .
Reishi or Ganoderma lucidum has several potential health benefits. In a randomized double-blind multicentered study G. lucidum extract “Ganopoly” given to patients with chronic hepatitis B was well tolerated, but no high-quality trials have been published .
Reishi decreased blood ALT (Alanine aminotransferase) and AST (Aspartate aminotransferase) levels, cirrhosis, and scarring in mice with liver injury. Proteoglycans and polysaccharides in reishi are hypothesized to be active [80, 81, 82, 83, 84].
In a low-quality randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial in patients with acute viral hepatitis, a polyherbal formulation containing Stonebreaker or Chanca Piedra (Phyllanthus niruri) was described to have anti-hepatitis activity. No large, well-designed trials have been published .
In a randomized, parallel, placebo-controlled study Schisandra fruits extract and sesamin (SCH) treated subjects had an improved fatty liver with an improvement in the liver function. This study had several limitations and no large-scale trials have replicated its findings .
A small clinical study suggested that Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) may help normalize liver enzymes (ALT, AST) in people undergoing antiretroviral therapy (ART) for the treatment of HIV-AIDS [92, 93].
One of the most popular reasons for consuming dandelion is its protective effect on the liver. But according to the NCCIH :
“There’s no compelling scientific evidence supporting the use of dandelion for any health condition.”
Traditionally used for enlarged liver and for liver revitalizing but lacking clinical evidence .
Amla (Emblica Officinalis) and Chyavanaprash reduced liver toxicity from chemicals and toxins and heavy metals like arsenic in rats (appears to be mediated by its free radical scavenging activity) [107, 108, 109, 110].
Most people can get all the vitamins they need from a healthy diet.
In animals, Vitamin E and C were more effective than Vitamin A against ethanol-mediated toxic effects during liver regeneration. Both E and C seemed to protect against liver injury and dysfunction and reduced lipid peroxidation .
Clinical trials in small cohorts of patients suggested that Vitamin E supplementation – alone or with vitamin C – may be useful in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), but this hasn’t been confirmed in large trials [112, 113].
Vitamin D deficiency is highly prevalent in patients with chronic liver disease (CLD). Vitamin D levels have been inversely related to the severity of CLD in some studies. The authors suggested supplementation as an option . Vitamin D is sometimes advised in patients with cholestasis .
Lemon balm (Melissa Officinalis) extract had a protective effect on liver cells in rats with high cholesterol according to one study. This was attributed to the presence of flavonoids in this plant .
Anecdotally, Castor oil packs are used to detox the liver. There’s no scientific evidence to back up this practice.