Your liver is one of your largest and most important organs. In addition to storing and releasing energy from foods, it acts as your body’s natural filter. Your liver catches the “gunk” in your blood, removing toxins and wastes from your system.
Given how important this organ is to your health, it’s no surprise that supplement manufacturers have jumped on the liver detox bandwagon. Dozens of products with names like “Liver Guard,” “Liver Rescue,” and “Liver Detox” claim they can get your liver in top shape — and help you feel better in the process.
Do liver supplements work? And does the organ that detoxifies your body really need its own detox?
In reality, many of the claims on liver supplement bottles don’t stand up to the research. Although some studies have found benefits from certain supplement ingredients — like milk thistle and artichoke leaf — they were mainly in people with liver disease. Whether these supplements can improve liver function in otherwise healthy people has yet to be proven.
Liver supplement labels claim their products will “detoxify,” “regenerate,” and “rescue” your liver. They purport to undo the damaging effects of alcohol, fat, sugar, and all the other toxins your liver’s been forced to process over the years — or after a weekend binge.
Liver supplement websites claim their products:
- promote liver function and health
- protect liver cells from damage
- stimulate the growth of new liver cells
- detoxify the liver
- improve blood flow from the liver
Manufacturers of these natural remedies promise that their supplements will regenerate your liver and restore it to its peak function. They also claim their products will give you more energy, strengthen your immune system, help you lose weight, and even improve your mood.
Weighing in at about 3 pounds, the liver has a lot of important jobs — about 500 of them, in fact. Your liver eventually processes everything you eat. After your stomach and intestines finish digesting food, it travels through your bloodstream to your liver for filtering.
The liver breaks down fat to release energy. It produces a yellow-green substance called bile to help your body break down and absorb fat.
This organ is also involved in sugar metabolism. It pulls glucose from your blood and stores it in the form of glycogen. Any time your blood sugar level dips, the liver releases glycogen to keep your levels steady.
When alcohol, medications, and other toxins make their way to your liver, it pulls them from your blood. Then it either cleans up these substances, or removes them into your urine or stool.
Many of the liver supplements on the market contain a combination of three herbal ingredients:
- milk thistle
- artichoke leaf
- dandelion root
Let’s break down each ingredient by the research.
Milk thistle has been used to treat liver disorders for more than 2,000 years. It’s the herbal ingredient most often used for liver complaints in the United States. The active substance in milk thistle is silymarin, which is made up of several natural plant chemicals.
Lab studies suggest that silymarin helps regenerate liver tissue, bring down inflammation, and protect liver cells from damage by acting as an antioxidant. Human studies have been mixed on its benefits, though.
One study looked at children who were being treated with chemotherapy for leukemia. After 28 days, kids who received milk thistle supplements had fewer signs of damage to their liver.
Many of the studies on silymarin have involved people with cirrhosis, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C. A Cochrane review evaluated 18 milk thistle studies including people with these conditions. The supplement didn’t have much effect on liver disease complications or deaths compared to placebo (inactive treatment), but many of the studies included in the review were of poor quality.
Milk thistle seems to be safe. Yet some people have reported GI symptoms or allergic reactions after taking it. Because this supplement can lower blood sugar levels, people with diabetes should check with their doctor before taking it.
In a 2016 study of people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, artichoke leaf reduced markers of liver damage compared with placebo. However, the clinical benefits of artichoke leaf supplementation remain to be seen.
Though dandelion has been used to treat liver ailments, the evidence of its benefits is scarce. Much more research is needed to determine whether it’s safe and effective for this purpose.
In addition to milk thistle, artichoke, and dandelion, liver supplements differentiate themselves by adding a blend of other ingredients. This can include things like wild tam Mexican root, yellow dock root extract, hawthorn berry, and chanca piedra.
Well-designed human studies to show these herbs work are still lacking.
There isn’t enough evidence to confirm whether taking supplements will detoxify or protect your liver. Yet a few lifestyle choices have been shown to improve liver health.
Here are a few tips to keep your liver in optimal shape:
- Limit the fat in your diet. Eating a diet heavy in fried foods, sweets, and fast foods leads to weight gain. Being obese or overweight increases the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Keeping your diet clean will result in a leaner, healthier liver.
- Stay away from toxins. The chemicals in some insecticides, cleaning products, and aerosols can damage your liver as it processes them. If you have to use these products, make sure the room is well ventilated. Don’t smoke, which is also harmful to the liver.
- Use caution when drinking alcohol. Large quantities of beer, wine, or liquor damages liver cells and can lead to cirrhosis. Drink alcohol in moderation — no more than one to two glasses a day.
- Avoid illicit drugs. Every drug you take has to be broken down and removed by your liver. Chronic use of drugs like heroin, steroids, and inhalants can permanently damage this organ.
- Don’t mix alcohol with drugs. Using these two substances together can compound liver damage. Read the instructions carefully before you take any prescription medication, and avoid alcohol if the label says the combination is unsafe.
Liver supplements make a lot of big claims. So far, most of those claims aren’t supported by research. If you’re thinking about taking one of these products, check with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you.