Toxins

Key points

  • Toxins are things that are poisonous to the body
  • If you are exposed to high levels of a toxin, your liver can get damaged
  • The liver is very good at repairing itself, but sometimes toxins do serious damage to the liver
  • Eventually, exposure to toxins can lead to liver failure or even death
  • If you think your liver has been exposed to a toxin, talk to your doctor

What do toxins do to the liver?

The liver may be injured or damaged by many different substances or toxins including medicines, herbal and dietary supplements and chemicals.

The liver is responsible for clearing toxins away. So if you are exposed to high levels of a toxin, your liver can get damaged.

Toxins can inflame the liver (hepatitis) causing liver damage, or cause sudden massive death of liver cells resulting in acute liver failure.

The liver is very good at repairing itself. But if it is constantly exposed to a toxin, serious damage can happen. Eventually, exposure to toxins can lead to liver failure or even death.


What substances are toxic to the liver?

There are lots of things that are toxic for the liver.

Medicines

Many medicines can have a side-effect of liver injury. This may be predictable, or in some cases rare and unpredictable. So when you start a new medicine, your doctor may recommend that your liver tests are monitored for a while.

A decision to use any medicine should be a balance between the potential benefits and the potential risks. Always follow your doctor’s instructions when you take medicines. Make sure you tell all your doctors if you have liver disease, as some medicines may be especially toxic for the liver.

Over-the-counter painkillers

Taking more than the recommended dose of paracetamol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen or naproxen) can cause liver damage.

Herbs and supplements

Even though they may be natural, some herbs and supplements can be toxic for the liver. Herbal and dietary supplements that can be harmful to the liver include:

  • Anabolic steroids and bodybuilding supplements
  • Aloe vera
  • Artemisia
  • Atractylis gummifera
  • Black cohosh
  • Callilepsis laureola
  • Cascara
  • Cassia cinnamon
  • Chaparral leaf
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Comfrey
  • Crotalaria
  • Curcumin and tumeric
  • Echinacea
  • Garcinia cambogia
  • Gardenia
  • Germander
  • Green tea extract
  • Greater celandine
  • Heliotropium
  • Jin bu huang
  • Kava / Kava Kava
  • Kombucha tea
  • Ma huang
  • Mistletoe
  • Plantago seed
  • Red peony root
  • Senecio
  • Skullcap
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Valerian root
  • Weight loss supplements

Chemicals and solvents

Chemicals you might use at work can be toxic to the liver. The liver can be damaged by breathing in, swallowing or absorbing chemicals through your skin.

Chemicals that are especially toxic for the liver include:

  • Carbon tetrachloride (a solvent used in dry cleaning)
  • Vinyl chloride (a chemical used to make plastics)
  • Paraquat (a weedkiller)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (industrial chemicals)

Alcohol

Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol makes your liver work harder. You can get hepatitis (inflammation) of the liver from drinking alcohol over time or suddenly, after binge drinking.


What are the signs my liver has been exposed to a toxin?

Signs of toxic liver disease can come on suddenly. In other cases the onset may be more gradual and may last a long time. See your doctor if you notice these signs and symptoms.

  • Pain in the belly, especially in the upper right side (where the liver is)
  • Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Fever
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dark-coloured wee
  • Itching
  • Headache
  • No appetite
  • Feeling very tired
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • White or grey poos

Can I detoxify my liver?

There are lots of products that claim to cleanse or detoxify your liver. But they’re not recommended.

That’s because there’s no evidence that they work. And some are dangerous – they can cause even more damage to your liver.

It is the job of your liver to detoxify and eliminate harmful substances from the body.

The best way to detoxify your body is to avoid things that may harm the liver and to live well.

If you think your liver has been exposed to a toxin, talk to your doctor.

Read more about living well

References

Canadian Liver Foundation. Your Liver

John Hopkins Medicine. Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction

Mayo Clinic. Toxic Hepatitis

WebMD. What Is Toxic Liver Disease, or Hepatotoxicity? 

 

Reviewed November 2022

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