Do some plants contain solutions for chronic liver health problems?

April 27, 2021
Robby Gardner

Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.

Scientists and other interested parties are exploring all of the plant kingdom in hopes of finding solutions.

Liver health isn’t a subject that’s often talked about, but numerous health conditions can result from an unhealthy liver. Most common among these is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which affects millions of people globally every year. NAFLD is characterized by an excess of fat cells in the liver, and it’s accompanied by a range of unwanted side effects.

There are currently no approved drugs to treat fatty liver disease, but scientists and other interested parties are exploring all of the plant kingdom in hopes of finding solutions. The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body. It helps the body digest food, store energy, and remove toxins. For the vast importance of this organ and the various other risks to liver health, it’s worth considering what phytonutrients may be found in the plant kingdom that may help the liver. Fortunately, many are under immense consideration.

Indexing Plants

Since Earth is home to hundreds of thousands of plants, no single human can study all of them. To speed things up, Brightseed (San Francisco) is using artificial intelligence to analyze thousands of edible and medicinal plants and index their phytonutrients. In just a handful of years, the company’s AI (named Forager) has analyzed more than 700,000 plant compounds.

When it comes to liver health, Brightseed’s technology recently identified two notable compounds, N-trans-caffeoyltyramine (NTC) and N-trans-feruloyltryamine (NTF), and found them in more than 80 common edible plants. Early research suggests that NTC and NTF, once ingested, are involved in the accumulation and clearance of liver fat, which could provide use against health conditions such as NAFLD. A clinical trial scheduled for later this year may provide more answers.

Because Brightseed found NTC and NTF in so many plants, the company is now considering which of those plants could make the most sense for possible commercialization. Black pepper was among the plants identified, yet factors such as fresh plant availability, sustainable production, and quality assurance will help the company and its partners decide which plant material will ultimately be best for scaling up a potential business. By the year 2025, Brightseed expects to map more than 25 million compounds in the plant kingdom, and this could greatly expand the company’s potential to discover phytochemical solutions for liver health and human health in general.

Turmeric

For all of the health benefits of turmeric (Curcuma longa), interested parties continue to pair the dried rhizome with other ingredients in the hopes of witnessing an exponential health effect. One of the more recent ideas is to combine turmeric with kokum fruit (Garcinia indica), a close relative to mangosteen.

In Ayurveda, kokum juice has documented use for liver health. With this mind, researchers at the global turmeric supplier Sabinsa Corp. (East Windsor, NJ) chose to evaluate a combination product of turmeric extract and kokum fruit extract in a liver health model. Using a STAM model, mice developed non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, a liver disease which progresses in mice as it does in humans, and some were fed a turmeric and kokum formula.1 The formula was associated with reduced severity of the disease, including lower levels of steatosis (fat buildup in the liver), liver fibrosis (scar tissue formation), and oxidative stress.

Sabinsa’s research team hopes to validate its findings with three human clinical trials that are still recruiting patients at the time of this writing. Meanwhile, the company is already marketing the two ingredients and a black pepper extract (to enhance bioavailability) in a patented formula called LivLonga. It’s just one of many ways that turmeric suppliers are promoting turmeric with other ingredients for a variety of health purposes.

Bergamot and Cardoon

Because steatosis is a primary symptom of fatty liver disease, ingredient suppliers and researchers often look for ingredients that can reduce steatosis in combination with positive lifestyle changes. A liver biopsy is too invasive for research on living human subjects, but some noninvasive technologies can be used instead (though their complete reliability is debated).

Utilizing one such technology, the controlled attenuation parameter (CAP), a team of Italian researchers recruited 102 adults for an intervention study in which consuming a daily supplement of bergamot extract (Citrus bergamia) and cardoon extract (Cynara cardunculus) was associated with improvements in CAP scores over 12 weeks.2 Significant improvements were observed only in adults aged 50 and older, but the research supports several previous studies in which the ingredients have already been linked to liver health support. Bergamot is a citrus fruit that’s particularly rich in antioxidant flavonoids, and cardoons are rich in certain polyphenols that have been associated with healthy increases in bile secretion from the liver.

The Italian Ministry of University and Research funded this study on bergamot and cardoon extracts. The formula used in the study is Bergacyn FF, sold by Dolcas Biotech LLC (Landing, NJ).

SAMe

For all of the nutrients that plants can provide for our health, human bodies do produce many of their own endogenous compounds. One of these is S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), and its role in liver health is important. Though SAMe has broad function throughout the human body, it’s primarily produced in the liver where it has been widely documented to have liver-protective effects. Furthermore, low levels of SAMe are often associated with chronic liver problems.

SAMe was recently evaluated in a systematic review of studies on pregnant women with intrahepatic cholestasis (ICP), a liver disorder that affects a small but significant amount of pregnant women.3 ICP is characterized by impaired bile flow from the liver, and its symptoms include itching, jaundice, and fatigue. When researchers looked at the data from three randomized studies and six non-randomized studies on SAMe supplementation in women with ICP, they found that SAMe was associated with normalizing levels of key liver enzymes and improvements in self-reported health symptoms such as fatigue and depression. While the data did vary from study to study, the researchers claim this review shows evidence of SAMe’s fast efficacy in early weeks of treatment.

For several decades, SAMe has been available as both a pharmaceutical drug and a nutraceutical ingredient. Gnosis by Lesaffre (Marcq-en-Baroeul, France), a manufacturer of both grades of SAMe, says the ingredient has application not just for liver health but also for mood and cognitive health due to the ingredient’s role in producing bodily glutathione, which can counteract oxidative stress and radicals produced in brain cells.

References

  1. Majeed M et al. “Novel combinatorial regimen of garcinol and curcuminoids for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) in mice.” Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 1 (May 4, 2020): 7440.
  2. Ferro Y et al. “Randomized clinical trial: a bergamot citrus and wild cardoon reduce liver steatosis and body weight in non-diabetic individuals aged over 50 years.” Frontiers in Endocrinology. Published online August 11, 2020.
  3. Noureddin M et al. “Early treatment efficacy of S-adenosylmethionine in patients with intrahepatic cholestasis: a systematic review.” World Journal of Hepatology, vol. 12, no. 2 (February 27, 2020): 46–63