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Herbal, Dietary Supplements Linked to Liver Damage

May 22, 2012 — Researchers are warning that herbal and dietary supplements — especially those found in weight-loss and body-building products — may cause severe liver injury. Dr. Jose Serrano, of the National Institutes of Health, conducted a review of national data, and found that supplements accounted for 18% of all liver injuries in the United States. The number of liver injuries caused by supplements has continued to increase in recent years.

Although no deaths have been reported, 7% of the patients required a liver transplant. Liver transplants are exceptionally scarce, and many people must wait several years to receive a new liver. The pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost income can also be significant.

The researchers analyzed data collected by the Drug Induced Liver Injury Network, which had information from eight states. The injuries occurred in the years between 2003 and 2011. During this time, there were 679 cases of liver injury, of which 93 were linked to dietary supplements.

The researchers found the following rates of injury associated with supplements:

  • 33% of liver injuries linked to body-building supplements
  • 26% of liver injuries linked to weight-loss supplements
  • 31% of liver injuries linked to other supplements

The researchers also found high rates of other complications. 78% of the patients had jaundice, 60% had nausea, 58% had itching, and 47% had abdominal pain

Furthermore, the researchers also found that 60% of patients required hospitalization, and 11% had altered liver function that persisted for at least 6 months.

The researchers concluded by expressing concern that there could be toxic dietary supplements or herbal supplements on the market. However, despite the risks, supplements are mostly exempt from federal oversight. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which Congress passed in 1994, most supplement manufacturers are allowed to sell their product without providing the FDA with even preliminary safety data. Supplement manufacturers are not allowed to make any health claims, but this rule is frequently ignored.

Another problem is that patients frequently do not tell their doctor about any dietary supplements, herbal supplements, or vitamins that they are taking. Pharmaceutical medications can interact with supplements, which could increase the risk for liver toxicity.

The authors of the study hope that future research will better understand the interactions of supplements on the body. They also hope that the public will be better-informed about the risk of taking dietary supplements. Many people falsely believe that they are food or that they’re very safe. In reality, supplements are subject to far less FDA scrutiny than food additives, and they can cause severe liver damage.

The results of the study were published as an abstract and presented at the Digestive Disease Week conference in San Diego, CA. The results of the study have not been peer-reviewed or published in a journal, and they should be considered preliminary.

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