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Natural Liver Detox Options

Updated on March 27, 2023

Article Summary:

  • Supporting the health of the liver is essential to long-term well-being.
  • Research suggests that using glutathione and milk thistle in concert enhances liver health by addressing oxidative stress, promoting cellular function, and supporting the detoxification process.*
  • Selecting a high-quality supplement designed to maximize the therapeutic benefits of its ingredients is essential to ensuring the best results.

Working day and night to metabolize substances of all sorts, the liver is constantly in action. Yet the liver is not infallible, nor is it invulnerable. As a person ages, their liver can accumulate damage that prevents them from operating at full capacity. Consumption of alcohol and ingesting other toxins exacerbate the rate at which this damage occurs, leaving the body with a slower metabolism and a liver with a compromised ability to detoxify. With a weaker liver, the body is exposed to toxins for longer and in a wider array of tissues, causing dysfunctions that can range from jaundice to cancer. Therefore, maintaining the health of the liver should be near the top of every individual’s healthcare priorities.

To maintain good liver health, many people turn to detoxification regimens. A detox regimen aims to purge the liver of toxins that ostensibly accumulate there, thereby enhancing its function. Although the scientific basis behind most detox regimens is more fable than fact, there are a number of practices that individuals can use in specific situations to support their liver’s ability to combat toxins.

The most effective detox regimens contain compounds that behave synergistically with the liver’s normal functioning. In other words, these detox regimens have compounds that are more effective when administered together. Individuals seeking an especially effective regimen have recently discovered a powerful new combination: glutathione and milk thistle extract. Milk thistle is a bioactive botanical that has long been associated with liver health; in contrast, glutathione is a compound naturally created by the body that is highly concentrated in liver cells. Both substances are safe, natural, and effective means of supporting the liver. Although a natural liver detox using glutathione and milk thistle will not reverse accumulated damage that occurred prior, individuals who opt to try the regimen will reliably experience its liver-enhancing effects.

What Is Glutathione?

Glutathione (GSH) is a tripeptide created by the body to address oxidative stress. As a natural antioxidant, glutathione “scavenges” harmful free radicals, which are byproducts of metabolism, that cause damaging oxidative stress when left unaddressed. In damaging a cell, free radicals will react with a cell’s enzymes, blocking the ability of the enzymes to perform their physiological functions. Rather than allowing the free radicals to react with intricate cellular machinery in a damaging way, glutathione reacts with the radicals instead. After the glutathione has reacted with as many free radicals as possible, the glutathione molecules are trafficked to the bile where they are safely degraded. In the liver, glutathione molecules are normally present in high concentrations. However, there are many free radicals and other dangerous chemicals being generated in the liver under normal conditions and if there aren’t enough glutathione molecules in the liver to offload the free radicals being generated, damage to the liver can accumulate quickly.

Using this rationale, researchers were able to prove that mice with chronically low glutathione levels in their livers experience a cascade of damage starting with the mitochondria in their liver cells and ending with total liver failure a month later. Conversely, it is believed that a higher level of glutathione can address ongoing damage caused by residual toxins or free radicals. This is why some healthcare providers offer intravenous glutathione in an aqueous format for rapid replenishment of depleted reserves. Typically, however, glutathione is taken orally in a powder or capsule format. When administered in supplement form, the side effects of glutathione are mild or absent, making it highly tolerable.

What Is Milk Thistle?

Glutathione is a potent antioxidant to include in a detox regimen, but it’s even more effective when paired with milk thistle, which enhanced glutathione’s activity. Milk thistle is a common botanical found worldwide, easily recognizable by its spiky purple flower and bright green stem. Significantly, the milk thistle plant contains a number of bioactive chemicals, including silybin and silymarin, both of which offer detoxifying benefits. Although the other constituents of milk thistle might also benefit liver cells, silybin and silymarin are the most studied because they are the most abundant ones in the plant.

Milk thistle can be consumed as a liquid extract or in dehydrated form in nutritional supplements. Although there is no consensus on the quantity that should be consumed to derive benefits, research has shown that milk thistle is safe to consume at quantities far beyond the amounts generally offered in supplements. The side effects of milk thistle are mild and include transient nausea, headaches, and dizziness. At high doses, milk thistle can cause diarrhea, although at lower doses the effect is merely to precipitate a bowel movement. And milk thistle appears to be safe for the liver when taken over a long period of time in individuals with a compromised liver.

Why is milk thistle beneficial for liver detoxing? In the context of liver health, milk thistle, like glutathione, behaves as an antioxidant. More importantly, milk thistle synergistically causes the liver to use glutathione more efficiently and in higher concentrations than normal.

Preventing Oxidative Stress

The antioxidant properties of milk thistle make it effective in detoxing the liver when the liver is experiencing oxidative stress. Although milk thistle scavenges free radicals, it is not a particularly outstanding scavenger compared to glutathione. However, milk thistle does possess several unique properties that make up for its relatively weaker scavenging ability. These properties tie in directly with glutathione, making the two compounds natural complements.

Unique among common antioxidants, milk thistle inhibits free radical formation. This effect is especially pronounced in the inhibition of free radicals generated by alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption is an egregious producer of free radicals, so the health-supportive effects of limiting alcohol’s oxidative impact are hard to overstate. Although milk thistle won’t prevent the negative systemic effects of alcohol—like a hangover—it might help to purge the leftover aldehydes and other metabolic byproducts of alcohol that are toxic. Because milk thistle can prevent free radicals from forming, its efficacy as an antioxidant is higher than it would seem based on its ability to scavenge free radicals alone. When used in combination with glutathione, its impact on the concentration of free radicals in the liver might be exponentially more beneficial. Lowering the rate at which free radicals are formed would free up more glutathione than would otherwise be available, leading to superior degradation of the remaining free radicals. Lowering the rate of free radical formation would also provide individuals with impaired glutathione synthesis or systemically high oxidative stress—as is commonly experienced in people with a variety of health conditions, including autism spectrum disorder—more time between experiencing oxidative stress and damage to their tissues.

Furthermore, milk thistle could ostensibly be used to preventively recruit extra glutathione to the liver in situations where an individual expects to be placing high than normal oxidative stress on their system. Although milk thistle hasn’t been explored in this context in humans, rats that received a mixture of constituents derived from milk thistle experienced 40% fewer instances of enzyme degradation when later exposed to a chemical cocktail designed to induce high levels of oxidative stress than did the control group. Although this activity is not “detoxification” per se, preventing damage from accumulating in the first place serves the same purpose.

Milk thistle’s active constituents also enhance the efficacy of glutathione by preventing its breakdown by liver enzymes in addition to recruiting glutathione molecules to the site of oxidative stress. This can lead to a higher concentration of glutathione than would otherwise be present. To accomplish this, milk thistle inhibits certain enzymes that degrade glutathione, like glutathione reductase and glutathione peroxidase. Although these enzymes are necessary for glutathione to offload its free radical cargo outside the liver, their presence inside the liver is detrimental for the purpose of detoxing. When these enzymes aren’t impacting glutathione, glutathione can remain in a high oxidative stress area longer, thus inhibiting damage. This effect makes milk thistle an excellent complement to glutathione for individuals expecting to confront oxidative stress in the near future.

Supporting Liver Cell Function

In addition to recruiting antioxidants and supporting their function, milk thistle also supports mitochondrial function. As the “powerhouse” of the cell, the mitochondria is an organelle that transforms nutrients, like glucose, into a format that cells can use for energy. Although this process would normally increase the rate of free radical generation, this effect is mitigated owing to milk thistle’s attraction of glutathione.

When liver cells have a higher supply of chemical energy than usual, they can perform more cycles of toxin removal than usual. As such, liver cells with overpowered mitochondria operate can more effectively when there is sufficient milk thistle present. The end effect is that blood exiting the liver has fewer toxins than it would otherwise. Likewise, a higher energy supply allows liver cells to traffic glutathione to problem areas more expediently. Later, cells with more energy can quickly remove and recycle the saturated glutathione molecules, closing the loop much more rapidly. For healthy individuals, the difference is likely negligible, but for individuals with lowered liver function, or high levels of oxidative stress, or a heavy toxin load, the impact could be significant.

Even for healthy individuals, boosting the amount of chemical energy generated by the mitochondria has other beneficial effects on liver cells. Research shows that, when exposed to a high concentration of toxic chemicals that would typically kill liver cells, cells that received supplemental milk thistle experienced lower mortality than those that did not. This phenomenon can most likely be attributed to the increased glutathione concentrations resulting from the administration of milk thistle.

These effects carry over into living patients with dramatic results. In a human trial investigating the impact of milk thistle extract on patients with liver damage caused by hepatitis B or C, those who received milk thistle extract experienced a 50% lower risk of mortality caused by liver pathologies. Although this was only the case in patients also receiving standard pharmaceutical therapies to support liver function—milk thistle alone did not lower mortality—the picture is clear: patients with weakened livers have better outcomes with milk thistle than without. This is due to the fact that cells with extra chemical energy are more resilient when faced with extreme conditions because they can export toxins using glutathione more efficiently. They’re also more resilient when toxins are degraded before they can cause permanent damage.

Supporting the Detoxification Process

In terms of direct detoxification of the liver, both glutathione and milk thistle are effective at degrading some of the most potent toxins that can be present in the liver. For example, milk thistle lowers the cellular concentration of a toxic chemical called malondialdehyde by degrading it into harmless components. Many other aldehyde class chemicals are created by the metabolic breakdown of alcohol and are similarly degraded by milk thistle before they can do significant damage. Unlike the aldehydes generated by alcohol metabolism, malonaldehyde is itself a product of reactive oxygen species reacting with other physiological compounds like phospholipids, which means that its synthesis has already caused damage to occur. Although most individuals might not know about malonaldehyde, it’s doubtlessly something their livers have encountered; whenever a reactive oxygen species gains access to a polyunsaturated lipid molecule, the ensuing chemical reaction will generate a molecule of malonaldehyde.

Like its precursors, malonaldehyde is highly reactive, although it reacts with a different set of targets than its precursors; rather than reacting with enzymes, malonaldehyde reacts with DNA. After this reaction, the section of DNA with which the malonaldehyde reacted is no longer “readable” by cellular machinery. In isolation, rendering a section of DNA unreadable would mean the cell could not implement whichever instructions were coded in that region—problematic, but not catastrophic because there are multiple redundant copies of DNA within the cell. The damage to the DNA is not so manageable when caused by malonaldehyde, however. This is because malonaldehyde persists long after the initial reaction period as a mutagen embedded with the DNA. These embedded mutagens are called DNA adducts, and they are highly correlated with developing cancers in whichever cell type they are found. The fact that milk thistle appears to degrade malonaldehyde, therefore, means that it might prevent damage to DNA that might lead to cancer. Although milk thistle’s cancer-preventing effects have been subject to a handful of clinical trials, the results of its efficacy remain inconclusive. Nonetheless, milk thistle’s beneficial impact on liver cells is proven, as is its extensive antioxidant capability.

Glutathione, on the other hand, is proficient at helping the liver to purge some of its most dangerous contaminants that don’t bind to DNA. For example, in one study, researchers found that when glutathione was depleted in liver cells, the cells died much faster when exposed to cadmium. Cadmium is a metal found in a variety of products, including certain paints, toys, alloys, and plastics, as well as tobacco smoke, batteries, solar panels, and older steel products. Cadmium is toxic to cells and difficult to remove from the liver without expensive and time-consuming metal chelation therapy. Even though the toxic nature of cadmium is well-known, many products still contain cadmium because it is not acutely toxic in commercial concentrations. But despite a lack of acute toxicity, chronic cadmium exposure can cause cellular dysfunction in the liver, which can have a detrimental impact on health. Glutathione can resist such dysfunction; the study demonstrated that when glutathione was boosted to greater than normal levels, liver cells recovered from cadmium exposure and maintained normal functioning. This beneficial effect of glutathione has been documented with other metals, ranging from iron to lead.

Given that metal chelation therapy is typically the only other option that a patient might have to address the toxicity caused by these metals, glutathione supplementation as part of a detox regimen could make a meaningful difference. Especially for patients who have chronic conditions that cause oxidative stress from other sources, addressing the stress caused by metal toxicity could provide significant benefits.

The Future of Natural Liver Detox

Ongoing research is attempting to shed more light on the scope and breadth of the combination of milk thistle and glutathione and their potential for purging the liver and the next few years will likely be replete with new findings. However, individuals seeking a more effective detoxification therapy for their liver can already benefit from therapeutic glutathione and milk thistle use, particularly as sophisticated new supplements enter the market.* These supplements can be used both routinely and preemptively when an individual expects to be drinking alcohol or being exposed to other sources of oxidative stress, like tobacco smoke.* For individuals who already have a weakened liver and seek to boost their liver’s ability to process toxins in the face of greater-than-usual oxidative stress, a milk thistle and glutathione detox regimen could also be a valuable addition to conventional therapies.* Taken together, these supplements offer a natural, highly tolerable, and potent combination to support health and well-being, potentially enhancing both longevity and quality of life.*

The power of Tesseract supplements lies in enhancing palatability, maximizing bioavailability and absorption, and micro-dosing of multiple nutrients in a single, highly effective capsule. Visit our website for more information about how Tesseract’s products can help support your hepatic health.*

Works Cited

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Comoglio A, Tomasi A, Malandrino S, et al. 1995. Biochemical Pharmacology. 50:1313–1316. 

Deleve L, Kaplowitz N. 1990. Seminars in Liver Disease. 10:251–266.  

Pietrangelo A, Montosi G, Garuti C, et al. 2002. Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes. 34:67–79. 

Pompella A, Visvikis A, Paolicchi A, et al. 2003. Biochemical Pharmacology. 66:1499–1503.  

Rambaldi A, Jacobs BP, Gluud C. 2007. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 

Zhang J, Zhou X, Wu W, et al. 2017. Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. 51:30–37.  

Al Czap, Founder | Tesseract

Al Czap has more than four decades of professional experience in preventative medicine. He founded Thorne Research in 1984 (sold in 2010) and he published Alternative Medicine Review for 17 years beginning in 1996. AMR was a highly acclaimed, peer-reviewed, and indexed medical journal. Al was the first to recognize the need for hypoallergenic ingredients and to devise methods of manufacture for and delivery of hypoallergenic products to underserved patient populations. His work has greatly impacted those with impaired immune and digestive systems and compromised health due to environmental exposures.

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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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