There is a growing problem that threatens the health of people of all ages. It’s a liver problem called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. To put it simply, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the build-up of fat around the liver. It’s not uncommon for people who overuse alcohol to develop liver disease, but with NAFLD, the cause isn’t alcohol but insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a precursor to Type 2 diabetes and is more common in obese people. So, obesity is also driving the growing epidemic of liver disease. When you combine the NAFLD epidemic with the number of people who suffer from alcoholic liver disease, it’s easy to see that liver health is collectively declining.
Although diet and weight loss play a key role in restoring liver health in sufferers of non-alcoholic liver disease, there are supplements which hold promise for protecting or restoring liver health. Keep in mind, studies that support these supplements are preliminary and supplements can differ with regard to quality. So, always check with your physician before taking supplements of any type.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant derived from caprylic acid, an ingredient in coconut and palm kernel oil. Studies in rodents show alpha lipoic helps reduce oxidative stress, a contributor to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Alpha lipoic acid also has anti-inflammatory activity, which may be beneficial for liver health as well. Some cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease enter a more aggressive, inflammatory stage that can lead to permanent scarring of the liver.
Human studies are still limited, so it’s not clear whether alpha lipoic acid is safe to take longer term, although preliminary studies suggest that short-term use is safe. However, it can cause a modest reduction in blood sugar. Don’t take it if you have a history of lower blood sugar or if you take medications to treat diabetes, including insulin.
Choline is similar in structure to B-vitamins. It’s naturally produced by the liver, but sometimes a liver doesn’t make enough of it for optimal liver health. In fact, research has shown 9 out of 10 Americans don’t get enough choline in their diet. Good sources of choline include beef liver, eggs, raw dairy, and cruciferous vegetables. Most meat and dairy factory farmed and raised, so it’s not surprising that most Americans don’t get enough choline through diet alone. Preliminary studies show that choline has anti-inflammatory activity that may benefit fatty liver and help support healthy liver function.
Milk thistle, also known as silymarin, is an herbal-based supplement that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Preliminary studies show that silymarin may have the capacity to reduce liver scarring. Around 30% of people who develop NAFLD also develop liver-damaging inflammation. About 20% of this group also progresses to liver scarring. This scarring is irreversible, and when it’s severe enough, may require a liver transplant. Once the liver is scarred, it can’t be reversed.
Some studies suggest that milk thistle helps prevent liver damage and scarring in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. In one study, people with fatty liver who ingested milk thistle experienced twice the reduction in liver size relative to those who ate a similar diet but didn’t take the supplement. Other studies show silymarin in milk thistle helps lower liver enzymes, markers of liver damage. Although milk thistle appears to be safe, human studies are limited. Still, milk thistle is one of the most popular supplements people take for fatty liver.
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Some studies suggest that Vitamin E as a supplement helps improve fatty liver. An analysis of multiple studies published in the journal Diseases showed treatment with Vitamin E was linked with a reduction in liver enzymes, a marker for improved liver function. The conclusion was that Vitamin E may be beneficial for people with biopsy-proven non-alcoholic fatty liver who don’t have diabetes. Some studies also suggest that a combination of alpha lipoic acid and Vitamin E or milk thistle and Vitamin E may have synergistic benefits, one boosting the benefits of the other. Vitamin E has potential side effects though. High doses as a supplement increase the risk of bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke. At one time, people took Vitamin E as a supplement in hopes of preventing heart disease. However, it was not effective for reducing cardiovascular risk and large doses were linked with a higher death rate.
Glutathione is an antioxidant found inside cells, including liver cells. So powerful is glutathione at keeping oxidative damage at bay that scientists call it the “master antioxidant.” Cells can make their own glutathione if there are enough amino acids around. Cells need three amino acids, cysteine, glutamate, and glycine, to synthesize it. However, people differ in how much they actually produce. Plus, if the body is under physical stress or lacks key supportive nutrients, glutathione production may fall. That’s why glutathione supplements are growing in popularity. Some studies suggest that glutathione supplements help the liver detoxify. A Japanese study published in BMC Gastroenterology also found that supplementation improved non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The Bottom Line
Always talk to a physician before taking a supplement for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or any other liver health problem. Hopefully, future research will show whether these supplements are a safe and effective approach to restoring liver health.
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