Benefits of Medicinal Plants Used in the Treatment of Liver Disease

Although some herbal treatments may help treat or prevent liver conditions, it’s critical for anyone interested in using herbal remedies for liver health.

Certain herbs have been associated with improved liver health, making them a popular natural remedy choice for those with liver conditions, as well as those who want to support their liver health.

The liver being an important organ is often exposed to array of threats . Injury to the liver can lead to deterioration of its functions and may culminate in organ failure . The likely risk factors for the development of the liver diseases have been suggested to include pathogenic microorganisms and viruses, hepatotoxins, overdose and duration of drugs, obesity and malnutrition, alcohol, autoimmune disorders, type-2 diabetes, and genetic factors . The diseases of the liver are of public health concern because orthodox remedies for liver diseases produce limited results with attendant side effects. As such, utilization of complementary and alternative herbal medicine has attracted research interest for novel plausible hepatoprotective agents capable of ameliorating or reversing liver injury with little side effects . Over the years, this search has gained impetus with many studies focusing on hepatoprotective potentials of plant drugs.

Botanicals have been used traditionally by herbalists and indigenous healers worldwide for the prevention and treatment of liver disease. Clinical research in this century has confirmed the efficacy of several plants in the treatment of liver disease. Basic scientific research has uncovered the mechanisms by which some plants afford their therapeutic effects. Silybum marianum (milk thistle) has been shown to have clinical applications in the treatment of toxic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, ischemic injury, radiation toxicity, and viral hepatitis via its antioxidative, anti-lipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, and liver regenerating effects. Picrorhiza kurroa, though less well researched than Silybum, appears to have similar applications and mechanisms of action. When compared with Silybum, the hepatoprotective effect of Picrorhiza was found to be similar, or in many cases, superior to the effect of Silybum.

Many people around the world live with conditions that affect the liver, including cirrhosis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), alcoholic liver disease, liver cancer, liver failure, and hepatitis .

Every year, liver disease accounts for nearly 2 million deaths worldwide .

Risk factors for liver disease include heavy alcohol intake, high blood sugar levels, obesity, high blood pressure, viruses, elevated triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and more .

Liver disease is treated in a number of ways, including medication, nutritional therapy, immunotherapy, lifestyle change, surgical resection, and even liver transplant in end stage liver disease .

In addition to standard treatments, many people turn to alternative therapies, including herbal supplements, in hopes of improving and protecting their liver health. In fact, around 65% of people in the United States and Europe with liver diseases take herbal supplements .

Here are the best herbs that have been shown to improve liver health.

Milk thistle (silymarin)

Silymarin, often called milk thistle, consists of a group of compounds extracted from milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seeds, including silybin, silychristin, and silydianin.

Milk thistle has been used for over 2,000 years to treat bile duct and liver conditions, and research shows that it may have liver-protective properties .

It has been suggested that silymarin has strong antioxidant effects and may help promote liver cell regeneration, reduce inflammation, and benefit those with liver disease. However, results from human studies have been mixed .

For example, some studies have shown that taking a silymarin supplement may help protect against liver disease progression, prolong life in people with alcoholic cirrhosis, and enhance overall quality of life in people with liver disease .

Yet, other studies indicate that silymarin is no more effective than placebo treatments, highlighting the need for additional research .

Regardless, silymarin is considered safe and has not been associated with adverse side effects, even when used at high doses

Ginseng
Ginseng is a popular herbal supplement known for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties .

A number of test-tube and animal studies have demonstrated that ginseng has antioxidant effects and may help protect against liver injury caused by viruses, toxins, and alcohol. Plus, it may boost liver cell regeneration after surgery.

What’s more, some human studies have shown that ginseng treatment may improve liver function and reduce fatigue and inflammation in people with liver disease and liver dysfunction.

For example, a 2020 study in 51 men with elevated levels of alanine transaminase (ALT), a marker for liver damage, found that those who took 3 grams of ginseng extract per day for 12 weeks experienced significant reductions in ALT, compared with a placebo group.

Levels of gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT), another marker for liver damage, were also reduced significantly .

Although these results are promising, more research investigating the effects of ginseng on liver health is needed.

When used on its own, ginseng is thought to be relatively safe for liver health. However, ginseng has the potential to react with medications, which can lead to liver injury and other potentially dangerous side effects .

Green tea

Although it isn’t technically an herb, green tea and its main polyphenol compound epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) are often included in literature reviews focusing on herbal remedies for liver conditions .

Some studies have found that supplementing with green tea extract may help treat those with liver disease.

A study in 80 people with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) found that supplementing with 500 mg of green tea extract per day for 90 days significantly reduced the liver damage markers ALT and aspartate aminotransferase (AST) .

Although the placebo group also noticed a reduction in AST and ALT levels, they were not significant .

Another 12-week study in 80 people with NAFLD observed that those who took 500 mg of green tea extract daily experienced significant improvements in AST, ALT, and inflammatory markers, compared with a placebo. The treatment also reduced fatty changes in the liver.

Green tea intake has likewise been shown to protect against various liver conditions, including liver cancer, hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver (hepatic steatosis), and chronic liver disease.

While drinking green tea is considered safe for most people, in rare cases, green tea extract supplements have been linked to acute liver injury.

Licorice
Although chewy candy often comes to mind when thinking of licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), it’s really an herb with powerful medicinal properties.

Licorice root has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and liver-protective effects in scientific studies (33Trusted Source).

The main active component in licorice root is the saponin compound glycyrrhizin, which is commonly used in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine to treat many ailments, including liver disease .

Some studies have demonstrated that treatment with licorice extract may benefit those with certain liver conditions.

A study in 66 people with fatty liver disease found that supplementing with 2 grams of licorice root extract per day for 2 months significantly reduced ALT and AST, compared with a placebo treatment .

In another small study, 6 healthy people took a glycyrrhizin product before drinking vodka every night for 12 days, and 6 people only drank vodka nightly for 12 days.

In the vodka-only group, liver damage markers, including ALT, AST, and GGT, significantly increased. In the glycyrrhizin group, these markers did not significantly increase, suggesting that glycyrrhizin may help protect against alcohol-related liver damage.

Although these findings are promising, more research is needed.

What’s more, some people are more sensitive to licorice, and the chronic use of licorice products can result in dangerous side effects, including high blood pressure and low blood levels of potassium .

Turmeric

Turmeric and its main active component curcumin have been linked to a variety of impressive health benefits.

It’s well documented that turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer properties, which makes this herb a popular choice for those with liver disease.

A study in people with NAFLD demonstrated that daily treatment with 500 mg of a curcumin product for 8 weeks significantly reduced liver fat content and levels of AST and ALT, compared with a placebo group ).

Another study in 70 people with NAFLD found that those who supplemented with 500 mg of curcumin and 5 mg of piperine per day for 12 weeks had significant reductions in ALT, AST, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and inflammatory markers, compared with a placebo group.

Piperine is a compound found in black pepper that enhances curcumin absorption.

It was also observed that the curcumin treatment significantly improved NAFLD severity, compared with the placebo group .

Supplementing with turmeric and curcumin is generally considered safe. However, some cases of acute liver injury have been reported. Still, it’s unclear whether these cases were due to the contamination of curcumin products or the products themselves.

Garlic
Although garlic is botanically considered a vegetable, it’s a popular component of many herbal remedies. It’s packed with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory plant compounds, such as allicin, alliin, and ajoene, which may help support liver health .

A 2020 study in 98 people with NAFLD found that those who took 800 mg of garlic powder per day for 15 weeks experienced significant reductions in ALT, AST, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, compared with a placebo group.

What’s more, 51% of the participants in the garlic group showed improvements in the severity of liver fat accumulation, compared with just 16% of the control group .

Another study in over 24,000 adults found that men who consumed raw garlic over 7 times per week had up to a 29% reduced risk of developing fatty liver disease. Although raw garlic intake was inversely associated with NAFLD in men, this association was not seen in women.

Additionally, a study linked raw garlic intake to a lower risk of liver cancer. Eating raw garlic twice or more per week was associated with a 23% reduced risk of liver cancer, compared with consuming raw garlic less than twice per week .

Although raw garlic is generally considered safe, concentrated garlic supplements may induce liver injury in some people.

Ginger
Ginger root is a popular culinary ingredient and also commonly used as a medicinal treatment for many health conditions, including liver disease.

A 12-week study in 46 people with NAFLD found that supplementing with 1,500 mg of ginger powder per day significantly reduced ALT, total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, fasting blood sugar, and the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP), compared with placebo treatment.

Another study observed similar results. People with NAFLD who supplemented with 2 grams of ginger for 12 weeks experienced significant reductions in ALT, GGT, inflammatory markers, and fat accumulation in the liver, compared with a placebo group .

Ginger root contains powerful compounds, including gingerols and shogaols, that help inhibit inflammation and protect against cellular damage, which may help support liver health. Plus, ginger may help protect your liver against toxins like alcohol .

Ginger is generally considered safe, even for those with liver conditions. However, you should always check with your healthcare provider before supplementing with high-dose ginger products .

Taking ginger supplements may help reduce liver damage and lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation in people with NAFLD. Ginger is generally considered safe.

Other herbs with liver-protective properties
In addition to the treatments listed above, many other herbs have been linked to improved liver health.

Danshen
Danshen is a substance that’s commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s the dried roots of the herb Salvia miltiorrhiza Bunge. Human and animal studies have shown that danshen may have positive effects on liver health.

Animal studies indicate danshen may help protect against alcohol-related liver disease and promote liver tissue regeneration, while some human studies suggest danshen injections may help treat liver fibrosis when used alongside other herbal remedies.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal supplement that has been linked to improved liver health. For example, a rodent study showed that ginkgo biloba injections reduced liver fibrosis and enhanced liver function.

Although ginkgo biloba has been associated with mild adverse side effects, it hasn’t been linked to liver injury specifically.

Astragalus
Astragalus is an edible herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s loaded with medicinal compounds, including saponins, isoflavonoids, and polysaccharides, which have powerful therapeutic properties.

It’s generally considered safe and hasn’t been associated with liver injury. However, it can interact with certain medications.

Rodent studies indicate that astragalus may help protect against fibrosis and high fat diet-induced fatty liver when used alone or in combination with other herbs.

We, therefore, conclude that there are a variety of phytochemicals in plant products with hepatoprotective activity against CCl4-induced toxicity by downregulation of liver marker enzymes, and activation of antioxidative capacity of the liver cells that leads to the restoration of the liver architecture.

There is need to validate the efficacy of some of the reported active components which can be likely candidate for therapeutic purposes. Research should move from whole plant extract experiment to isolation of bioactive components and testing the extract on culture cell lines.

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