There is a saying that just because some is good, more is not necessarily better. This certainly holds true for dietary supplements, medications, and herbal remedies. Though adding certain vitamins, herbal remedies, and other natural products into your diet can be beneficial at certain dosages, it is also possible that some of these same supplements can be damaging to your liver.

Do Dietary Supplements Damage Your Liver?

Since labeling and dosages of dietary supplements are not regulated in the same manner as prescription drugs in America, you may not always know exactly when enough is enough with a particular supplement, but your liver certainly does. Unlike viral hepatitis, hepatotoxicity (toxic hepatitis) is a condition where your liver damage occurs as a side effect of something you ingest. 

Your liver plays a vital role in your body by helping to flush out toxins and waste products. By filtering your blood, your liver eventually comes into contact with everything that comes into your body, flushing these contaminants and byproducts out through your urine and bile. 

The chemical processes involved in filtering your blood are complex, and it is possible that unhealthy compounds can be formed during the natural process of your liver doing its job. When this happens, your liver can become injured and inflamed. In mild cases of liver injury, you may feel unwell and might even seek medical treatment for symptoms similar to jaundice. In more severe cases, scarring on the liver can form. This permanent scarring, called cirrhosis, can be very dangerous, and is a step closer to liver failure. 

Can Supplements Affect Liver Enzymes?

The answer to whether supplements can harm the liver is almost certainly yes. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the production of supplements, it is difficult to do rigorous research on exactly what substances in a given supplement may be a potential source of liver damage. While the active ingredients in many supplements or medications may not be harmful, it is possible that other supplement ingredients could be the source of a problem. 

It is important to remember that not all supplements have a negative effect on liver enzymes. Some natural remedies such as milk thistle, for example, appear to help defend the liver against the damaging effects of certain liver conditions such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The Hidden Dangers of Dietary Supplements

One area of significant concern is drug interactions between over the counter or prescription drugs and supplements potentially harming you in unexpected ways. This can be a problem with common and otherwise potentially harmless supplements such as St. John’s wort. Failing to tell your healthcare provider that you are taking St. John’s wort, especially at a high dose, could lead to adverse events where the buildup of unhealthy enzymes in the liver could risk damage or complete liver failure. 

These potential adverse events can arise from a wide range of sources including dietary supplements, probiotics, multivitamins, and herbal products. Though it might be tempting to think these reactions would only arise from exotic or uncommon substances, it is possible that common and well-known supplements can cause serious liver damage if paired with the wrong medication. 

Signs of Liver Damage

Your body has the ability to process certain amounts of many kinds of vitamins and minerals. This is the reason the FDA regulates levels of recommended daily intake of nutrients such as vitamin D, folic acid, or calcium. If levels of these or many other nutrients exceed levels your body can metabolize, waste products will begin piling up in the liver, leading to potential health risks.  

If you are taking dietary supplements, especially for weight loss or building muscle, it is important to know the signs of potential liver damage. Some of the most common symptoms are listed below:

  • fever
  • dark-colored urine
  • itching
  • abdominal pain
  • headaches
  • diarrhea
  • unexpected weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • jaundice
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • white or gray stool

Liver damage or liver failure caused by taking supplements could come from many sources, though there are certain types of dietary supplements that are increasingly coming under scrutiny. Supplements used in bodybuilding or weight loss can be particularly hard on the liver, as they attempt to alter metabolic processes in which your liver plays a role. 

While organizations like the FDA can be relied on for information about prescription drugs, supplements and herbal remedies are not regulated in the same way. This means that supplement manufacturers have much greater leeway in manufacturing and labeling supplements. As a result, it is not always possible for consumers to know about potential risks for liver damage just by reading supplement labels. 

What Vitamins are Hard on the Liver?

Nearly anything can become damaging if you consume too much of it, but certain vitamins and minerals have a greater chance of causing liver damage than others. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) runs the Office of Dietary Supplements, which lists Vitamin C, folate, and calcium as just a few examples of nutrients that are commonly thought of as healthy that can be very damaging to the liver if consumed in excessive quantities.

The list of medications that could potentially lead to negative drug interactions is long, and includes some of the most common classes of drugs used to treat health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Even antidepressants can sometimes lead to unexpected outcomes when paired with the wrong supplements.

It is difficult to accurately diagnose liver problems, as there are many different health conditions that could result in similar symptoms and damage to liver tissue. Even in the absence of clearly damaging behavior such as excessive alcohol consumption, an individual’s immune system can sometimes begin attacking liver tissue, resulting in inflammation and damage to the liver. 

Talk to your Doctor About Dietary Supplements

Acute liver failure is a deadly condition that can quickly result in death if left untreated. If you have reason to believe that you may be suffering from sudden severe liver damage or failure, you should seek medical treatment immediately. When you receive care, be as clear and thorough as possible in explaining to your doctor all medications and supplements you are currently taking.

As is the case with nearly everything related to your health, taking a careful, measured approach, and consulting with your healthcare provider, is likely safer than trusting in the bold claims of any particular dietary supplement. This is particularly true when it comes to weight loss or bodybuilding supplements or sexual enhancement pills that claim to provide dramatic results not available by any other means. 

Products that claim to radically alter your metabolism or add significant amounts of muscle can be very dangerous for your overall health, and for your liver in particular. The increasing number of young men seeking medical care for symptoms of liver damage despite being otherwise healthy is placing increasing scrutiny on supplements that claim to burn fat or build muscle at dramatic rates. 

Your digestive tract is a complex system of many organs working together, and while the human body can adapt to a remarkable number of stresses and toxins, damaging any part of your digestive system can lead to serious and potentially life-long consequences for your overall health.  

At Cary Gastroenterology, we know that caring for your entire digestive system is crucial for good health. Especially as we age, careful attention to what we eat and drink, and what other vitamins and minerals we take in through supplements and multivitamins is increasingly important. If you are concerned that supplements you have been taking might lead to liver damage, or just want to learn more about how to take steps toward better digestive health, request an appointment at Cary Gastroenterology today.