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Hepatitis C Alternative Treatments

Experts lay out the pros and cons of herbal remedies and other treatments for hepatitis C.

Complementary and Alternative Options for Hepatitis C continued...

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is the most popular herbal remedy for hepatitis C and among the best studied. Milk thistle is thought to both reduce liver inflammation and have an antiviral effect on the hepatitis C infection. A very small study presented at the 2008 European Association for the Study of the Liver conference suggested that milk thistle might decrease levels of the hepatitis C virus in patients who didn't respond to standard medical treatment. However, a previous larger review that looked at several studies concluded that milk thistle does little to reduce the complications of liver disease or improve the results of liver function tests. Though the evidence on milk thistle is so far inconclusive, the herb appears to be very safe with few side effects reported.

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) uses the active component found in the dried root of the licorice plant. Some studies indicate that it might reduce some of the complications of hepatitis C (including liver cancer) and improve liver function. Licorice root is either taken on its own or combined with other herbs. In one study, patients who took a combination of licorice root, milk thistle, and several other herbs had improved measures of liver enzymes (a marker of liver damage and inflammation) and tests of liver function. Licorice root should be used carefully because it can have significant side effects, including high blood pressure, salt and water retention, and potassium loss. It also can have potentially dangerous interactions with medications such as diuretics, certain heart medications, and corticosteroids.

Thymus extract comes from the thymus gland of cows. Because the thymus helps regulate immune function, it has been speculated that its extract might boost the immune system in hepatitis C patients, but too few studies have been done to confirm this theory. A small study of Complete Thymic Formula, a dietary supplement containing thymus extract, as well as vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, found that this supplement did not benefit hepatitis C patients who had failed conventional treatment. Although this study noted only one side effect (a drop in blood platelets), there is concern that thymus extract might be prone to contamination because it comes from animals. People with immune problems (such as HIV/AIDS) should use caution when taking thymus extract.

Ginseng has been used to boost the immune system, and there is some evidence that it might help people with other types of liver conditions. However, it hasn't been studied well enough in people with hepatitis C to show any benefit. And because ginseng can decrease blood sugar and increase risk for bleeding, it should be used very carefully.

Schisandra is a plant that has been used for centuries as part of traditional Japanese medicine. In one small study, a Japanese herbal medicine called TJ-108 containing schisandra fruit had an antiviral effect on hepatitis C. However, the researchers aren't sure whether the schisandra or other ingredients in the herbal remedy were responsible for this effect.

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