The liver is a marvelously sophisticated chemical laboratory, capable of carrying out thousands of chemical transformations on which the body depends. The liver produces some important chemicals from scratch and modifies others to allow the body to use them better. In addition, the liver neutralizes an enormous range of toxins. Without a functioning liver, you cannot live for long.

Unfortunately, a number of influences can severely damage the liver, of which alcohol is the most common. This powerful liver toxin harms the liver in three stages: alcoholic fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, then cirrhosis. Although the first two stages of injury are usually reversible, cirrhosis is not. Generally, liver cirrhosis is a result of more than 10 years of heavy alcohol abuse.

Usually, alcoholic hepatitis is discovered through blood tests that detect levels of enzymes released from the liver. The blood levels of these enzymes—known by acronyms such as SGOT, SGPT, ALT, AST, and GGT—rise as damage to the liver (by any cause) progresses.

If blood tests show that you have alcoholic hepatitis (or any other form of liver disease), it is essential that you stop drinking. There is little in the way of specific treatment beyond this.

Principle Proposed Natural Treatments

Several herbs and supplements have shown promise for protecting the liver from alcohol-induced damage. However, none of these has been conclusively proven effective, and cutting down (or eliminating) alcohol consumption is undoubtedly more effective than any other treatment. For information regarding natural treatments that can help people stop drinking, see the article on alcoholism . The alcoholism article also discusses the depletion of certain nutrients, which may affect people who consume enough alcohol to damage the liver.

Below, we concentrate on treatments used specifically to treat early liver damage caused by alcohol. Treatments for more advanced alcohol-induced liver damage are discussed in the liver cirrhosis article.

Milk Thistle

Numerous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies enrolling a total of several hundred people have evaluated whether the herb milk thistle can successfully counter alcohol-induced liver damage. However, these studies have yielded inconsistent results. For example, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in 1981 followed 106 Finnish soldiers with alcoholic liver disease over a period of 4 weeks. 1 The treated group showed a significant decrease in elevated liver enzymes and improvement in liver structure as evaluated by biopsy in 29 subjects.

Two similar studies enrolling a total of approximately 60 people also found benefits. 2,3 However, a 3-month, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 116 people showed little to no additional benefit, perhaps because most participants reduced their alcohol consumption and almost half of them stopped drinking entirely. 4 Another study found no benefit in 72 patients who were followed for 15 months. 5

A 2007 review of published and unpublished studies on milk thistle as a treatment for liver disease concluded that benefits were seen only in low-quality trials, and, even in those, milk thistle did not show more than a slight benefit. 17 A subsequent 2008 review of 19 randomized trials drew a similar conclusion for alcoholic liver disease generally, although it did find a modest reduction in mortality for patients with severe liver cirrhosis . 18

For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full Milk Thistle article.

Other Proposed Natural Treatments

The supplement SAMe has also shown some promise for preventing or treating alcoholic hepatitis, but as yet there is no reliable evidence to support its use for this purpose. 6-9

The supplement TMG helps the body create its own SAMe and has also shown promise in very preliminary studies. 10-13

Herbs and Supplements to Avoid

High doses of the supplements beta-carotene and vitamin A might cause alcoholic liver disease to develop more rapidly in people who abuse alcohol. 14,15 Nutritional supplementation at the standard daily requirement level should not cause a problem. See the articles on Vitamin A and Beta-carotene for more information.

Although one animal study suggests that the herb kava might aid in alcohol withdrawal, 16 the herb can cause liver damage; therefore, it should not be used by people with alcoholic liver disease (and probably not by anyone at all). Numerous other herbs possess known or suspected liver-toxic properties, including coltsfoot, comfrey, germander, greater celandine, kombucha , pennyroyal, and various prepackaged Chinese herbal remedies . For this reason, people with alcoholic liver disease should use caution before taking any medicinal herbs.