Take a walk through the pharmacy section of your local grocery store, and you’re likely to find one or more dietary supplements on the shelves that are labeled as “liver cleanse,” “liver health” or “liver detox” products. You can find even more of these online.
They’re available as soft gels, capsules and liquids, with prices ranging from about $11 to $70. And they all make claims similar to this:
“This product helps protect and promote liver health, to assist the body’s natural detoxification process.”
But do these “liver detox” supplements actually work? And are they safe?
To find out, we spoke with UNC REX Healthcare gastroenterologist Tanvir Haque, MD.
Do Liver Detox Supplements Work?
“The liver is a very important organ,” Dr. Haque says. “It’s the largest organ inside the body, and its main job is to act as a detoxifier.”
The liver plays several roles in eliminating toxins from the body. It filters the blood to remove large toxins, it synthesizes and eliminates bile, which is full of cholesterol and other toxins, and it eliminates unwanted chemicals.
Because the liver is a powerful detoxifier, “it doesn’t make much sense to me that a dietary supplement would be needed to ‘detox’ the liver,” Dr. Haque says.
There is also little scientific evidence, if any, to support the idea that “liver detox” supplements provide any benefit for liver health, Dr. Haque says.
Are Liver Detox Supplements Safe?
Another problem with “liver detox” products, and many other dietary supplements, is that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them, Dr. Haque says. So no one knows if they’re safe or effective.
That’s why the claims that companies make on their product labels all include this disclaimer:
“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Quality control in the supplement manufacturing process is sometimes very poor. For example, studies in which supplements were tested to find out what substances they contained revealed that some do not even contain the active ingredient that is advertised on their labels, Dr. Haque says. That means you might be paying for something you’re not getting, and taking something you didn’t sign up for.
Can Liver Detox Supplements Be Harmful?
Dr. Haque says he’s not aware of any incidents or studies that show people have suffered liver injury caused by taking supplements labeled as “liver detox” or “liver cleanse” products.
However, plenty of evidence shows that other common supplements do cause liver damage.
For example, a study published in the journal Hepatology in 2016 found that the frequency of liver injury from herbal and dietary supplements in the United States “appears to be increasing.” In particular, this study found that green tea extract, which is used in many supplements marketed as “fat burners” or weight-loss products, can cause “an acute hepatitis-like injury” to the liver.
That’s one reason why Consumer Reports says that green tea extract is one of 15 supplement ingredients that should always be avoided.
In 2018, another study found that more than 700 over-the-counter supplements marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss or muscle building contained unapproved and potentially harmful pharmaceutical ingredients, including synthetic steroids or steroid-like ingredients.
“I would urge you to talk with your doctor first before taking any dietary supplements, including the ones that claim to be good for liver health,” Dr. Haque says.
“You may actually do more harm to yourself by taking them than by avoiding them.”
If you’re struggling with digestive problems, talk to your doctor or find a gastroenterologist near you.