Watch Out! These Supplements Could Be Damaging Your Liver

That weight-loss or insomnia relief supplement you pop without thinking could be killing your liver. Yes! We eat supplements to score some extra health - the idea is to gain through the pill the nutrients and health-giving compounds that you think you are not getting from your food.

But the truth is, this mindless popping could actually be detrimental to your health (instead of adding to it), especially for the health of your liver.

Now the liver is a hardworking organ - it makes bile, helps score nutrients from the diet, break down your food and provide energy to your other organs, break down fats, alcohol and medications, controls blood sugar and hormone levels, stores iron and lots more - so it is extremely vital to keep us going and healthy.

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What Harms the Liver

You probably already know that too much sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (hidden in most processed foods) causes a fatty buildup that can lead to liver disease. In fact, now it is clear that sugar can be as damaging to the liver as alcohol, even if you’re not overweight. Other known risk factors for our livers’ health are excess weight, diabetes, high cholesterol, too much alcohol and excessive amounts of certain medications and pesticides as these can damage your liver — an organ that helps eliminate toxic substances from your blood.

Overexposure to toxins that we eat inadvertently can be harmful to the liver, and sometimes the danger comes lurking (hidden) in seemingly safe substances too - like bonafide supplements.

Just because a supplement is labeled as ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it is good for you. In fact, very often there could be an ugly trade-off: a very real risk of liver damage with some of the seemingly safe supplements.

Usually, the higher the dose of the toxic compounds, the more often liver damage occurs, but it is important to know that sometimes these compounds can lead to a distinctive reaction in some individuals, irrespective of the quantity. Plus, taking more than one medicine or herb that acts on the liver can aggravate the issue. So it is important to be wary of popping of pills arbitrarily.

Too Much Green?

A simple case in point here is the much-coveted green tea extract (GTE), that is derived from unfermented leaves of the Chinese tea tree, Camellia sinensis. An active ingredient in GTE epigallocatechin gallate, a catechin, (also found in cocoa products and certain berries) is much in demand because of its purported weight-loss properties - but multiple studies have linked its over-dosage to hepatotoxicity (liver damage).

It is important to understand here that it is perfectly okay if you love green tea, as drinking a few cups a day is safe and may actually be good for you. 

But it’s the high doses of green tea extract found in weight-loss supplements that can lead to serious damage.

More Danger

Similarly anabolic steroids, mostly added to bodybuilding supplements pose similar risks to the liver too, so they’re best avoided. Also look out for usnic acid, comfrey, chaparral and germander (all found in weight loss pills), and kava, also called ava pepper (found in anxiety and insomnia and menopause symptoms relieving supplements). All are poison for your liver in big doses.

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Too much Vitamin A?

Our body needs vitamin A, and it’s okay to get it from fresh fruits and vegetables. But if you take supplements that have high doses of this vitamin, then hypervitaminosis A, or vitamin A toxicity may happen when and it can lead to liver damage. Symptoms of overdose to look out for are gastrointestinal: nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain neurological: dizziness, irritability, drowsiness, headache dermatological: rash or peeling skin.

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Iron overload?

Iron is essential for us as it is needed to make hemoglobin that transports oxygen throughout the body. Most of us usually suffer from its deficiency, but sometimes its overload (hemochromatosis) can happen due to unnecessary intake of supplements. The problem with too much-stored iron is that the body can’t easily get rid of it or excrete it, so stores it in the liver (and heart and pancreas), which might lead to cirrhosis. Symptoms of too much iron are chronic fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain, irregular heart rhythm skin colour changes (bronze, ashen-gray green). So look out for these.

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The Good Fatty Acid?

CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), an essential fatty acid is a popular supplement for slimming, with bodybuilders, and is thought to lower bad LDL cholesterol too, but its excess could lead to some unacceptable side effects. Too much of it may negatively affect the liver as it could lower the good cholesterol HDL, and worsen insulin resistance. It is best to stick to its food sources like milk, beef, and other meat (also found in sunflower and safflower oil) rather than resorting to its supplements in this case.

So the simple rule to follow is: the fewer pills you pop - including those labeled as herbal - the better it is for you.

(Kavita Devgan is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa).)

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