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Some Milk Thistle or Licorice Root for Your Liver?

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A licorice root extract called glycyrrhizin has also shown promise as a possible remedy for chronic hepatitis C and liver cancer, says University of California, Davis, researcher Mark Zern, MD. But how it works is unclear, Zern says, and its long-term benefits have not been tested.

Commenting on both therapies, Bacon tells WebMD, "Those are relatively harmless medicines, but there's very little data showing that they're [effective]."

There are other herbal preparations that may help livers heal. Bacon presented findings on a 10-herb mixture that showed an effect on rat cells, but the potential therapeutic mechanism -- and the effect of the mixture in humans -- are unknown. And Japanese researcher Hidetsugu Saito, MD, presented findings on a group of herbal mixtures, known as Hozai, that appears to have anti-cancer effects.

Although solid scientific research is needed to establish the benefits and risks of herbal products as liver treatments, the FDA's weak regulation of dietary supplements isn't going to drive companies to conduct the studies, Bacon says. "I don't think there's an incentive [for] the industries that make these things, because they're already out on the market."

The event was organized by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, along with NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, its Office of Dietary Supplements, and the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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