What’s the biggest threat to your liver? Alcohol? Maybe. But those dietary supplements you’re taking might also do harm to that vital organ.
Over half of Americans take some type of dietary supplement. Some are used to fortify crucial vitamins in the body (think Calcium and Vitamin D), while others are used to boost healthy cholesterol levels (fish oil), improve sleep (melatonin), or promote a healthy pregnancy (folic acid).
But research by the National Institutes of Health indicates some of these products might cause liver damage. The study focused on about 700 cases of liver damage, 130 of which were linked to dietary supplements. This number represented a sharp increase from the number of dietary supplement related cases reported in 2004, which came in at just 7 percent of all drug-induced liver injuries. A decade later, the number had shot up to 20 percent.
Worse yet, researchers believe that data likely underestimates the extent of the problem. This is because the Network tracks only the most severe cases of liver damage caused by drugs and supplements, and so more moderate cases may go unreported.
Based on the cases, two types of supplements stood out – those associated with bodybuilding and weight loss. These two categories were responsible for about half of the cases of liver damage linked to supplements. Negative effects on the liver from supplements marketed for depression, digestive upset, and sexual performance were also observed, but the results were not as marked. Anabolic steroids and green tea extract appear to be at the top of the list as culprits for compromising our liver health.
Despite the fact that they are illegal, anabolic steroids are often added to supplements aimed at bodybuilding. In addition to taking a toll on your liver, anabolic steroids have been linked to other serious health side effects, hence their illegality in the United States. There is no surefire way to know whether the steroids have been added to a supplement, which makes taking them more risky than other supplements.
The effect of green tea extract on the liver was more surprising to researchers. Drinking green tea has been shown to have multiple health benefits. But the supplements are not a distillation of the beverage made from brewing tea leaves in hot water. Instead, they contain concentrated amounts of particular compounds found in green tea. In the NIH study, products listing green tea extract (as a single ingredient or as part of a blend) contributed to liver damage in 24 of the 130 cases linked to dietary supplements.
While there are benefits to taking supplements, we should use caution when choosing which ones to take. Some things to do before starting a new regimen include researching the supplement, making sure herbal supplements include only the herb advertised, and talking to your doctor. Your liver will thank you.