Dec. 17, 2001 -- We're often tempted to overindulge during the
holidays, then wish we could wave a magic wand to undo the damage. With our
liver working overtime to inactivate alcohol and process rich, fatty foods, a
potion to heal stressed-out liver cells might just do the trick. But before you
stress out your holiday budget on expensive dietary supplements, consider
the following facts
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Most toxins, or poisons, reach our bloodstream when we swallow
or inhale them. Others pass through our skin, while still others are released
by dying cells or invading bacteria. Many of these toxins pass through the
liver -- the body's waste-purification plant -- where they are broken down and
removed from the blood before they can do their dirty work.
Poisons are also broken down by the kidney, eliminated in the
urine and feces, or exhaled. Drinking six to eight glasses of water daily;
eating lots of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains; and avoiding tobacco
smoke and other fumes can all help keep your body in top working order. So can
cutting back on fried foods, animal fats, sugar, and caffeine.
We can protect ourselves to some extent by avoiding obvious
hazards such as recreational drugs, unsafe sex, and raw shellfish, all of which
can cause the liver-damaging disease hepatitis. But even when we're being good to our liver,
hidden dangers can damage its cells and interfere with toxin breakdown. Toxins
lurk in prescription medications, food additives, and air pollutants, and these
may be impossible to avoid completely.
Here's where "liver detoxification" might come in. When
the liver is working double-duty to protect you from an onslaught of bad diet,
bad judgment, and unavoidable insults, it could benefit from a little extra
Antioxidant vitamins such as C, E, and beta-carotene; minerals such
as zinc and selenium; B-vitamins that aid alcohol metabolism; and herbs said to "cleanse" the
liver such as milk thistle, dandelion root, and schizandra, might help protect
liver cells while ridding our body of poisons.
"There is a lot of experimental work in the laboratory and
in animals suggesting the beneficial effect of milk thistle extract," Raman
Venkataramanan, PhD, FCP, tells WebMD. He is a professor of pharmaceutical
sciences and pathology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Laboratory studies by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, a professor of
cancer medicine at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in
Houston, and his colleagues also suggest that silymarin, an extract of milk
thistle, acts on biochemical pathways to aid in detoxification.
"In the laboratory, silymarin is quite protective against
liver damage," Aggarwal tells WebMD. "It is approved in Europe for
liver damage, especially that induced by alcohol, and seems to have no adverse
But the jury is still out on the ability of supplements like milk thistle to live up to these
claims, and to what extent.