Liver Disease

The liver processes blood as it leaves the stomach and intestines, breaking down nutrients and drugs and filtering out toxins. Chronic liver disease affects one in ten Americans and kills 27,000 of them each year. Any disease of the liver can inhibit its ability to process and eliminate drugs — both pharmaceuticals and medicinal herbs — meaning they can accumulate and reach toxic levels. If you've got any liver issues, talk with your doctor about taking any medicine or supplement, and avoid alcohol (your liver won't be able to process that drug properly, either).

Alcohol-induced Liver Disease

If you regularly drink more alcohol than your liver can handle, the alcohol overload can cause several diseases.

  • Fatty liver disease affects almost all heavy drinkers and involves the accumulation of excess fat cells. Symptoms can include abdominal discomfort, although many people won't see any signs at all. It will improve if you stop drinking.

  • Alcoholic hepatitis affects up to 35 percent of heavy drinkers and creates nausea, abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice (a yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes). The damage can be reversed if you eliminate the alcohol but can lead to progressive and permanent liver damage if you don't.

  • Alcoholic cirrhosis affects about 20 percent of heavy drinkers, most often after ten or more years of serious imbibing. In cirrhosis, normal liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Symptoms are similar to those of alcoholic hepatitis (see above), but the damage is irreversible.

  • Infectious Hepatitis

    This is caused by a virus — commonly known as hepatitis A, B, or C — and typically produces fever, headache, fever, and jaundice. Symptoms and treatments vary:

  • Hepatitis A (HVA), which is generally transmitted through contaminated food or water, typically clears up after six months without causing permanent damage.

  • Hepatitis B (HVB) can be acute (short-term, without any lasting problems) or chronic (ongoing and possibly leading to cirrhosis, cancer, or liver failure). It's transmitted through bodily fluids and from mother to baby during childbirth.

  • Hepatitis C (HVC) is transmitted via blood and often produces no symptoms (meaning it can go undetected for years). Hepatitis C damages the liver and can lead to potentially fatal liver diseases.

  • Hepatitis A is generally treated with a vaccine, which can help thwart the infection. Doctors typically let an acute hepatitis B infection run its course without any drug treatments; chronic HVB and HVC infections may be treated with antiviral drugs called interferons, which can cause muscle pain and other side effects.

    The most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States is overdosing on acetaminophen (Tylenol). Taking more than the recommended doses or combining the drug with alcohol can create more toxic byproducts than your liver can handle. Excessive doses of other OTC and prescription drugs can also cause liver toxicity.

    Herbal Liver Helpers

    If you've got liver disease, you should definitely follow your doctor's advice (and take the meds that are prescribed), but you can also use herbs to support your liver and its functioning. For example:

    Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus, C. scolymus)

    Artichoke is a choleretic (it enhances the flow of bile) and rich source of antioxidants. It helps the liver process fats and cholesterol and protects it from oxidative damage.

    Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis)

    Extracts of this mushroom can improve liver function in people with infectious hepatitis. It also improves triglyceride and blood sugar levels in diabetics, which could help prevent fatty liver disease.

    Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)

    Milk thistle extracts support liver function and can improve the symptoms of alcoholic liver disease and infectious hepatitis. They also stimulate liver regeneration and the formation of new liver cells.

    Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis)

    Schisandra extracts can protect the liver and have been shown to improve liver function in patients with viral and drug-induced hepatitis.

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