Dr Alice Lam

“Detox diets”, supplements and Traditional Chinese Medicine are marketed as beneficial for the liver, but do they work?

First let’s look at where the liver is and what it does.

Liver anatomy

The liver is a large organ in your upper right belly, usually protected by the ribs. It weighs about 1.5kg and connects with the gallbladder, pancreas and intestines.

Its functions include:

  • producing bile to help digest fats
  • making proteins for the blood
  • turning excess glucose into glycogen for energy storage and later release
  • regulating blood clotting
  • working as part of the immune system
  • breaking down toxins and drugs.

Detox diets

Also known as a liver cleanse or flush, some people believe a detox diet helps remove excess waste after too much alcohol, unhealthy foods, or just for daily liver health. The first days may begin with fasting or drinking fluids only. Most detox diets take out processed food from your diet and may include commercial products, such as herbal supplements.

Some people feel better on these diets, often simply due to eating more healthily. This might cause them to believe that the liver cleanse works, but it’s important to consider the following:

  • If the diet requires drinking lots of juice and you have kidney disease or diabetes, this might be harmful. As some juices are high in sugar this can also be unhealthy for the average person.
  • If the diet involves fasting, you may feel dizzy and weak.
  • If you have liver damage from hepatitis B or C, this could worsen the damage1,2.
  • Not enough scientific trials have been done on detox diets to advise on their safety and risks3.

For most people following a healthy lifestyle, the liver is well equipped to remove day-to-day toxins and you don’t need to do a detox.


Some studies in animals show milk thistle decreases liver inflammation, and turmeric protects against liver injury. However, there haven’t been enough studies done on humans to recommend their use in prevention of liver disease4.

The US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) advises that milk thistle can cause allergic reactions in some people or low blood sugar in people living with diabetes5.

We should also remember that detox products and liver supplements may not be standardised. Products could have different strengths and be of varying quality. Some may interact with medication or have side effects including causing liver damage.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views the liver in terms of vital energy (qi) and the storage of blood (xue). Together with the scheme of Yin Yang, TCM practitioners may diagnose liver disorders, and offer treatments like acupuncture or herbs6.

There is no evidence that acupuncture helps people with liver conditions. However, it is relatively safe if performed correctly7.

Because there have been very few good quality studies, we have no strong proof that Chinese herbal products work for liver health. Some products have also been found to have been contaminated with plant or animal material, drugs like the blood-thinner warfarin, and heavy metals like arsenic. Some products can even contain the wrong herbs, which may damage the liver8.

Therefore, it is very important that you are confident of what is in the Chinese herbs you buy. If you decide to use Chinese herbs or other supplements, it is advisable that you talk to your doctor, especially if you have hepatitis B or C, or other chronic diseases.

Finally, the best way to look after your liver is maintain a healthy weight, follow a balanced diet, exercise regularly, minimise alcohol intake, and avoid smoking.


  1. 2018. Can a Detox or Cleanse Help Your Liver? [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/liver-detox#1 [Accessed 8 January 2020]2.
  2. 2020. Foods and Drugs to Avoid With Hepatitis C. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/hepatitis/hep-c-foods-drugs-avoid#2 [Accessed 17 January 2020].
  3. Klein, A., 2015. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, [Online]. 28(6), 675-86. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25522674 [Accessed 8 January 2020].
  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2020. Detoxing Your Liver: Fact Versus Fiction. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/detoxing-your-liver-fact-versus-fiction [Accessed 8 January 2020].
  5. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 2016. Milk Thistle. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/ataglance.htm#hed2 [Accessed 8 January 2020].
  6. Chen, T., 1998. The liver in traditional Chinese medicine. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, [Online]. 13(4), 437-42. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9641312 [Accessed 8 January 2020].
  7. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 2020. Acupuncture: In Depth. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction [Accessed 8 January 2020].
  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 2020. Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need To Know. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm [Accessed 8 January 2020].


Last updated 

20 January 2020