To Protect Your Liver, Take Five

This hard-working organ is essential to life itself and must function properly to ensure good health. Five supplements can help keep your liver healthy.

Your liver weighs 3 pounds, stores minerals and vitamins, metabolizes fats, carbohydrates and protein, produces energy, manufactures proteins the body can use for repair and growth and regulates use of fat stores. And that’s by no means a complete list of its functions. It also makes bile to help digest fat. All the blood that leaves the digestive system passes through the liver before it reaches the rest of your body, which means that it is strategically placed to process nutrients. The liver stores reserves of iron and regulates blood clotting. It also acts as the body’s refinery, cleansing the blood and the air we breathe, rendering toxic substances into a form that can be eliminated easily. An impaired liver is less able to perform all these crucial functions. The liver also maintains hormone balance and helps the body resist infection by producing immune factors.

Disorders such as hepatitis and gallbladder disease can weaken the liver, as can overconsumption of alcohol or certain medications (the acetaminophen in Tylenol for example) and exposure to pesticides and other forms of air pollution. Even the passage of time takes its toll: As we age, the liver decreases in size and less blood flows through it, meaning that toxins are not removed as efficiently.

One of the best ways to keep your liver operating in peak condition is to consume a diet high in protein, which contains ample amino acids, and antioxidant-rich vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Excessive intake of certain medications and exposure to chemicals can also stress the liver. You can take advantage of several herbs and nutrients seemingly custom-made by Mother Nature to optimize liver health. Here are five natural supplements that will strengthen and protect this vital organ. Note that dosages given are general ranges. Your health-care provider can recommend specific dosages.

1. Vitamin C. This nutrient boosts levels of the antioxidant glutathione, which is highly effective in neutralizing free radicals, especially in the liver.1 Free radicals leave our bodies more vulnerable to disease and accelerate the aging process.

Typical dosage: 1,500 mg. daily

2. Vitamin E. This is another potent antioxidant.2 Be sure to take the natural form, d-alpha-tocopherol, rather than the synthetic counterpart, dl-tocopherylacetate; the natural form  is more easily absorbed and stimulates the immune system more effectively.

Typical dosage: 400 to 800 mg. daily

3. Milk thistle. One of the all-stars for liver healing and protection, this herb has been extremely well researched for use in the treatment of liver disease. The use of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) for liver and spleen conditions dates back to the 1600s, but relatively recent research by German doctors has proven its ability to treat liver disease and to protect the liver against environmental toxins and injury.3 Milk thistle also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.4 Human studies have shown milk thistle to be generally without side effects. However, at doses above 1,500 mg. daily, it may produce a laxative effect due to increased bile flow and secretion.

Typical dosage: 200 to 400 mg. of silymarin (milk thistle’s active ingredient) daily

4. Alpha lipoic acid. This is a vital nutrient for the liver because it plays a key role in removing toxins and byproducts of fat metabolism and fends off the toxic effects of alcohol. Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant that also protects other antioxidants, including glutathione and CoQ10. No other nutrient does this. Lipoic acid may be even more effective when taken in combination with milk thistle and selenium.5

Typical dosage: 100 to 300 mg. daily

5. Green tea. Green tea, or Camellia sinensis, is a known cancer fighter, but it also has liver-protective properties. The catechins in green tea are powerful antioxidants that seem to protect against the damage that toxins wreak upon cells. Various animal studies indicate that green tea is helpful in the treatment of viral hepatitis and liver cancer. It has been found to reduce and prevent the growth of abnormal liver tissue in rodents.6

Typical dosage: 100 to 150 mg. (or 3 cups) three times a day

Special Situations

Two other natural supplements are advisable in certain situations. If you have been exposed to hepatitis or have a family history of liver cancer, you should also take selenium. Research has shown that this antioxidant boosts the functioning of the immune system and helps inhibit cancerous cell changes in liver cells exposed to known carcinogens. In one study selenium levels were significantly lower in patients who developed liver cancer as compared to those who did not develop cancer.7

Typical therapeutic dosage: 50 to 140 mcg. daily

Grape-seed extract is also a noteworthy antioxidant. A recent study found that it provided significantly better protection than vitamins C and E—singly and in combination—particularly against liver and kidney damage from acetaminophen overdose.8

Typical therapeutic dosage: 150 to 200 mg. four times a day

Selected References:
1.       Atkins, R.C., "Vitamins," Dr. Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution, Simon & Schuster, 1998, page 93.

2.       Factor V.M., Laskowska, D., and Jensen, M.R., "Vitamin E Reduces Chromosomal Damage and Inhibits Hepatic Tumor Formation in Transgenic Mouse Model," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(5), 2000, pages 2196 2201.

3.       Saller, R., Meier, R., Brignoli, R.,"The use of Silymarin in the Treatment of Liver Diseases,’  Drugs,  61(14), 2001, pages 2035-2063.

4.       Giese, L.A., "Milk Thistle and the Treatment of Hepatitis,” Gastroenterology Nursing, 24(2), 2001, pages 95-97.

5.        Berkson, B.M., “A Conservative Triple Antioxidant Approach to the Treatment of Hepatitis C. Combination of Alpha Lipoic Acid (Thioctic Acid), Silymarin, and Selenium: Three Case Histories," Medizinische Klinik, 94(Suppl 3), 1999,  pages 84-89.

6.        Cao, J., Xu, Y., Chen, J., et al.,  "Chemopreventive Effects of Green and Black Tea on Pulmonary and Hepatic Carcinogenesis,” Fundamental and Applied Toxicology,  29(2), 1996, pages 244-250.

7.        Yu, S.Y., Zhu, Y.J., Li, W.G., "Protective Role of Selenium Against Hepatitis B Virus and Primary Liver Cancer in Qidong," Biological Trace Element Research, 56(1), 1997, pages 117-124.

8.       Ray, S.D., Kumar, M.A., Bagchi, D., "A Novel Proanthocyanidin IH636 Grape Seed Extract Increases in Vivo Bcl-XL Expression and Prevents Acetaminophen-Induced Programmed and Unprogrammed Cell Death in Mouse Liver," Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 369(1), 1999, pages 42-58.

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