Maybe we’re just a little obsessed with “clean.” “Clean” living, “clean” eating, disinfecting your surroundings, detoxing your internal organs. Anything in the pursuit of wellness, right?
But organs like the liver do a pretty solid job of detoxing for us. Do you need a special supplement or juice fast to keep it in top shape? This research can help you decide.
The liver is a hefty organ (about 3 pounds!) that sits to the right of and somewhat atop your stomach, under your lungs and rib cage. It’s responsible for many vital functions, including cleaning your blood. It breaks down drugs and chemicals and secretes bile into your small intestine to help with digestion.
Your liver is like the saintly roommate who cleans up the apartment after a party and then makes you scrambled eggs and toast to soothe your hangover.
You see them in the supplement aisle and on wellness websites — bottles of capsules, packets of powder, juices, soups, and multiday protocols meant to detox your liver and start with a clean slate. They claim to:
- “support liver health and assist with toxin elimination”
- “revitalize the liver, support healthy digestion, naturally flush toxins”
- “cleanse the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas”
- “nourish and rejuvenate the liver, organs, and skin”
- “detoxify your body, improve your energy and wellness”
So you might think, “I’ve been eating a lot of snacks and drinking alcohol — my liver must be pretty dirty. Time to detox!”
Packaging might lead you to believe not only that your liver needs a good wash but also that detoxing it will give you more energy and help you lose weight.
The downside is that many herbal ingredients are known to cause liver damage. And fasting (recommended by some detox programs) can cause weakness and dehydration.
Some of the ingredients in herbal “cleanses” are associated with kidney failure and liver failure.
Researchers in a 2017 study reported that a commercially available “detox” tea contained six ingredients that are believed to be toxic to the liver: gardenia, skullcap root, cinnamon bark, black pepper, juniper berry, and rhubarb root.
One study found that 51 percent of supplements taken by participants contained ingredients that weren’t listed on the labels.
Because the composition of multi-ingredient products can vary widely from batch to batch, it’s nearly impossible to know whether a “cleanse” is accurately labeled and whether all the ingredients are in safe concentrations.
Short answer: No.
One of the dopest things about the human liver is that it can regenerate after as much as 70 percent of the organ is surgically removed. Scientists still don’t totally understand how the liver does it, but this superpower could be related to its job as a filter for all the toxin-filled blood flowing from the gut.
In other words, your liver is really the expert at detoxification.
Unless you have a liver disease like hepatitis or cirrhosis, your liver probably functions just fine without any extra herbal support. The biggest risk factors for liver disease are excessive alcohol consumption and a family history of liver disease.
Steps you can take to protect your liver:
- Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B.
- Get tested for hepatitis C if you’re in a high-risk group.
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
- Limit alcohol consumption and take medications as prescribed.
- Avoid contact with blood and body fluids.
Some botanical ingredients have been linked with supporting liver function. Here are a few that might help:
This Mediterranean plant has been used to treat liver ailments for centuries. Research indicates that silibinin, a component of milk thistle, has antioxidant properties and improves liver conditions. It’s generally believed to be nontoxic in humans.
This spice derived from the root of Curcuma longa is commonly grown in India and Southeast Asia. The active extract curcumin is believed to be both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It’s traditionally used for digestive and liver support.
Both turmeric and the extract are considered safe and have only rarely been linked to liver injury. In cases where patients taking turmeric sustained liver injury, it was unclear whether other substances could have been to blame.
This flower is traditionally used in China as both food and medicine. The roots are especially rich in polysaccharides. Research indicates that two polysaccharides show potential for preventing liver injury due to acetaminophen toxicity.
Apple cider vinegar is thought to have many possible health benefits, including liver detoxification. But scientific evidence for such claims is thin to nonexistent.
Recent studies have examined the use of apple cider vinegar to prevent weight gain (in rats), prevent diabetes complications (also in rats), soothe dermatitis, and treat fungal infections.
Where scientific support is lacking, anecdotal evidence abounds across social media. Drinking a little vinegar is probably harmless if it makes you feel better, just be sure to dilute it with plenty of water to protect your teeth and throat.
On the other hand, there is a fair amount of scientific evidence that vitamins can support a healthy liver.
Here’s what the research says:
- The antioxidant effects of vitamins C, E, and B-12 can protect the liver from acetaminophen toxicity (in rats, at least).
- According to a 2016 review of studies, carotenoids and vitamins B-3 and C have positive effects on alcoholic liver disease in animal models when combined with alcohol cessation.
- In a small 2019 study, women with polycystic ovary syndrome showed improvement in liver tests after taking a daily vitamin D supplement for 3 months.
One way to keep all your organs in good working order is to eat a varied, healthful diet of foods that make you feel good.
Foods that can help protect against liver disease:
While it might be tempting to do a little spring cleaning on your internal organs, your liver’s like, “Nah, I’m good.” Your liver serves many functions in your body, including detoxifying your blood.
Unless you have liver disease, your liver is probably doing a good job without the help of a special “detox,” cleanse, or fast. Avoid obscure herbal ingredients and stick to the botanicals and vitamins that research has proven effective for liver support.
If you’re concerned about liver disease, focus on things you can do to keep your liver healthy and prevent damage. Minimize alcohol and drug consumption, stay hydrated, eat a balanced diet, and maintain a moderate weight since fat around the liver can significantly interfere with its function.
If you have liver damage or if medical tests of your liver have shown any irregularities, don’t try to DIY treatment. See your healthcare provider for evaluation and effective medications.