Some people may not think about their liver except after a long night at a bar, so your customers might not know there are other causes of liver problems besides over consumption of alcohol.
The liver is the second largest organ in the body, in charge of turning what we eat and drink into energy and nutrients to be dispersed throughout the body, producing bile to break down fats and cleaning the blood of toxins such as those found in drugs and alcohol.
According to the American Liver Foundation, one in every 10 Americans is affected by liver disease, which is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States (1). Some liver diseases are caused by viruses, like hepatitis A, B and C, while others are inherited or develop directly from drinking too much alcohol, called alcohol-related liver disease. Alcohol can damage or destroy liver cells, so limiting alcohol is the way to prevent this disease. Fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH, a type of fatty liver disease) are caused by the build-up of fat in liver cells, which can be prevented by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and maintaining a normal cholesterol level. All of these diseases can lead to the liver swelling and becoming damaged or cirrhosis, the degeneration of liver cells and swelling and thickening of the tissue (1).
The liver can be harmed by toxins, such as unnatural cleaning and aerosol products, insecticides, chemicals and additives in cigarettes, as well as incorrectly taking medications, so staying away from these unnatural products can help to avoid liver problems (1).
Because of these toxins, the body needs to “detox” itself. The liver and kidneys work together to process chemicals by making water-soluble compounds and expelling them from the body through sweat, urine and feces, and some through the lungs and skin (2).
Even though the liver detoxifies itself naturally, sometimes it can use a little help. Here are some herbs that can help your customers flush away their fears and protect their livers from disease.
The Herbal Clean-Up Crew
Historically, milk thistle, a flowering herb native to the Mediterranean, has been used to protect against liver disorders and improve liver function as well as lower cholesterol levels, help reduce the growth of several cancers and reduce insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes and cirrhosis (3). The active part of the herb is silymarin, which is extracted from the seeds and used in capsules, extracts, powders and tinctures.
Case studies have shown that milk thistle, specifically silymarin, may be beneficial because of its hepatoprotective properties such as antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory functions. One study from the University of Washington in Seattle tested the extract for these properties and found clear evidence of silymarin’s hepatoprotective properties in cell cultures and animals (4).
Milk thistle also has the potential to lower blood sugar levels, so caution those who may have diabetes, hypoglycemia or are taking medication or blood sugar-support supplements. Some allergic reactions are possible if the customer is allergic to plants within the milk thistle family such as ragweed, marigold or daisy (3).
In the same family as milk thistle is burdock, a common weed native to Europe and Northern Asia, but is now found growing throughout the United States. The fresh or dried roots are used for medicinal purposes, and can be found as dried root supplements, fluid extracts, decoctions and tinctures. The herb is known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant (phenolic acids, quercetin and luteolin) and antibacterial effects (5). Burdock is traditionally used as a blood purifier as a way to clear out toxins and as a diuretic to help the body rid itself of excess water.
As with milk thistle, customers sensitive to ragweed and related plants should be wary of using burdock. These roots resemble the roots of belladonna (also called deadly nightshade), an herb used in miniscule amounts in some homeopathic remedies that can be dangerous in large amounts (5). Make sure to remind your customers that they need to come to you, their trusted burdock source, instead of digging up the roots themselves!
Dandelion, also known as lion’s tooth and blowball, has been used in Native American and Arabic traditional medicines as an aid for liver disease, as well as for the kidney, spleen and some digestive problems. Edible dandelion greens, fresh and dried, which are high in vitamin A, are typically made into a tonic or teas, eaten fresh or cooked, made into wine or extracted and encapsulated (6). There is the potential risk of being allergic to the plant, and people with an inflamed or infected gallbladder should avoid dandelion.
Your customers may only know mistletoe as a holiday decoration, but for those with liver disease, mistletoe shouldn’t come around just once a year. A study from Berg en Bosch Medical Centre in the Netherlands administered mistletoe over the course of one year to 21 patients suffering from hepatitis C. By the end of the study, patients demonstrated a significant boost in their quality of life and an improvement in liver inflammation, leading researchers to believe mistletoe helps by possibly reducing long-term complications of hepatitis C, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. These results were comparable to another form of hepatitis C aid called “glycyrrhizin treatment,” a licorice root compound (7).
Artichokes aren’t just in the produce aisle anymore. Artichoke leaves, in traditional European medicine, were used as a diuretic to stimulate the kidneys and the flow of bile from the liver and gallbladder. Italian scientists isolated a compound from the artichoke leaf, called cynarin, which imitated the effects of the whole artichoke, and was used as a liver, gallbladder and cholesterol aid. The leaves are used more often in contemporary medicines, with studies suggesting that artichoke protects the liver from damage (8). Consequently, artichoke has become a popular, though not clinically established, hangover aid after nights of alcohol overindulgence.
Turmeric, an herb in the ginger family, has been used since the 1970s in India for its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as for its color and flavor in curry. Well known in Ayurvedic tradition, turmeric is believed to bring overall energy to the body as well as to help protect the liver. Curcumin, a component of turmeric, is often interchangeable with turmeric in studies and medicines (9).
A study from the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology at the Radiation Medicine Centre in Bombay, India tested the effect of turmeric on rats with liver damage. Subjects were divided into five groups, each administered different levels of turmeric or the chemical CC14; their levels of bilirubin, cholesterol, aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine amino transferase (ALT) and alkaline phosphatase were tested every month for three months. After that time, the chemically treated rats showed a negative increase in all serums, while the turmeric extract positively lowered all levels (10).
Other herbs to consider for liver health include bolodo leaf, saffron, veronica, nettle leaf, spirulina and yellowdock. As with the aforementioned herbs, warn your customers about potential allergies and reactions with other medications or supplements.
If your customers need a detoxifying boost, they might want to try a complete detox diet; however these diets can be dangerous if not handled correctly. Often, fasting is involved, which when done correctly, can lead to an enjoyable experience of feeling more clear-headed, having more energy and feeling clean of toxins (2). However, when done incorrectly or for too long, detox diets can possibly lead to more health problems than it helps due to lack of nutrients, dehydration and digestive problems, as well as a slowed metabolism; customers with diabetes, low blood sugar, eating disorders or heart conditions should not attempt a detox diet (2).
This is not the case for everyone, but for concerned customers, an array of branded liver supplements are available, with many companies offering a liver detox system of supplements intended to safely rid the body of toxins and chemicals. Most include the aforementioned herbs, combined together for extra strength, conveniently found in one detox regimen while also providing liver protection. WF
1. American Liver Foundation, “An Introduction to Liver Care,” www.liverfoundation.org/downloads/alf_download_29.pdf, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
2. WebMD, “Natural Liver Detox Diets (Liver Cleansing),” www.webmd.com/balance/natural-liver-detox-diets-liver-cleansing?page=2, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
3. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Milk Thistle,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/ataglance.htm, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
4. S.J. Polyak, et al., “Silmarin for HCV infection,” Antivir. Ther. Sept. 24, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23011959, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
5. University of Maryland Medical Center, “Burdock,” www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/burdock-000227.htm, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
6. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Dandelion,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/dandelion.
7. K.J. Tusenius, A.M. Spoek and J. Van Hattum, “Exploratory Study on the Effects of Treatment with Two Mistletoe Preparations on Chronic Hepatitis C,” Arzneimittelforschung. 55(12):749–753 (2005).
8. NYU Langone Medical Center, “Artichoke,” www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=21516, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
9. NYU Langone Medical Center, “Turmeric,” www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=21874, accessed Oct. 4, 2012.
10. U.R. Deshpande, et al., “Protective Effect of Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) Extract on Carbon Tetrachloride-Induced Liver Damage in Rats,” Ind. J. of Exper. Biol. 36 (6), 573–577 (1998).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2012