While alcohol use can harm the liver — the organ that cleanses blood and fights infection — so can overusing certain herbal supplements and medications.
Typically, herbal supplements do not cause problems when used, especially if the person taking them isn’t on prescription medication. However, there are cases in which supplements do not mix well with medications and can lead to liver damage.
When listing your current medications for a medical provider or pharmacist, make sure you mention any herbal supplements you take. This helps your doctor avoid possible toxic interactions, said June Yong, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist and internal medicine provider with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.
“Herbal supplements can change the way your body metabolizes medications,” Dr. Yong said. “When this occurs, the medication may stay longer in the body than intended and build up a higher concentration of the drug. Both are dangerous to your health.”
Signs that herbal supplements are interacting negatively with medications in ways that could potentially harm your liver include:
- Yellowing eyes or fingertips
- Muscle aches
- Dark yellow urine
“Extreme confusion is a sign of liver failure,” Dr. Yong said. “If you or a family member notice confusion coupled with debilitating fatigue, go immediately to the emergency room for care.”
Teaming Up for Liver Care
Patients with symptoms of liver failure undergo liver function tests to confirm or rule out this diagnosis. Those with elevated numbers can be referred to the liver transplant program at Jewish Hospital, part of KentuckyOne Health, and placed on appropriate medications. During this time, patients are given intravenous fluids and monitored carefully for appropriate oxygenation levels and normal bowel movements, since constipation can result in toxin buildup.
“If the liver doesn’t recover, we determine next steps, including candidacy for liver transplantation,” said Laura Smart, MD, transplant hepatologist and medical director for the liver transplant program at Jewish Hospital.
Talk with your primary care physician about the use of herbal supplements.
When Transplant Is Needed
An established program for almost two decades now, the Liver Transplant Program at Jewish Hospital, part of KentuckyOne Health, was the first of its kind in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
“This robust program connects 50 patients per year with lifesaving liver transplants as soon as they become available, sometimes in as few as two days,” said Dr. Smart.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 Summer edition of One Health magazine. Receive more health and wellness news and information by signing up for your free subscription to One Health.