Herbal Medicine and Liver Damage

Herbs are a popular alternative treatment for many conditions, including types of liver disease. However, just because a remedy comes from a plant and has been around for a long time doesn't make it safe. Here are some medicinal herbs, traditionally used around the world, that are known to cause, or may have potential to cause, liver damage.


Greater Celandine

Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus)
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Chelidonium majus, commonly known as greater celandine, is a member of the poppy family. It has many medicinal uses, including treatment for biliary disorders and dyspepsia (poor digestion). Ironically, though herbalists have used it to treat hepatitis, it has been known to cause cholestatic hepatitis when taken orally. In addition to its traditional digestive uses, it has also been used as a sedative.



Creosote Bush

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Larrea tridentata, commonly known as chaparral, is traditionally used to treat various bacterial and viral infections. As such, it's a popular folk remedy for people with HIV. Very severe cases of liver disease (including massive liver failure) have been documented from people using this seemingly harmless plant as a medicine.



Pennyroyal plant
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Mentha pulegium, commonly known as pennyroyal, has a long history as a useful plant. Its edible leaves produce an essential oil used in soap making. It has a strong mint smell and is used as a flavoring for teas. As a medicine, it has been used as a digestive tonic to relieve colic and flatulence. It has also been used to induce abortions since it can stimulate uterine muscles and trigger menstruation. Despite its inviting aroma, it's actually very toxic and causes damage to both the liver and the central nervous system.


Kava Kava

Kava (Piper methysticum)
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Piper methysticum, commonly known as kava kava, is a shrub from the South Pacific. In the United States, dietary supplements containing kava kava root have been used as an herbal treatment to treat anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, and premenstrual syndrome. Since 2002, the FDA has warned that kava kava can cause liver damage.


Wall Germander

Illustration of Teucrium chamaedrys (Wall Germander) bearing pink flowers and evergreen leaves on long stems
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Teucrium chamaedrys, commonly known as wall germander, is an herb that's used to treat gout and a variety of other illnesses. Because of its diuretic properties, it has also been taken to help lose weight. Unfortunately, the herb can be very toxic and there are documented cases of liver damage from its use (even with taking the recommended amount).



Sprig of mistletoe with leaves & berries (medicinal plant)
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Viscum album, commonly known as mistletoe, is probably best known as the holiday adornment that encourages a kiss. However, it has a very different use as a medicinal herb. Mistletoe is used to reduce anxiety by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and is being studied for use in treating cancer and side effects of conventional cancer treatment. However, there is at least one published report that suggests mistletoe is responsible for causing hepatitis.


Atractylis gummifera

The leaves of this plant produce a sweet resin that can be made into chewing gum (hence, the scientific name "gummifera"). In Mediterranean countries, it's also used to treat fever, induce vomiting and increase urination. However, this plant has toxins that can lead to acute liver failure.​

It is important to work with someone knowledgeable in herbal use, such as a registered herbalist or licensed naturopathic doctor, to ensure safe and proper use of herbs for treatment purposes.

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  1. Teschke R, Frenzel C, Glass X, Schulze J, Eickhoff A. Greater Celandine hepatotoxicity: a clinical review. Ann Hepatol. 2012;11(6):838-848. doi:10.1016/S1665-2681(19)31408-5

  2. Stickel F, Shouval D. Hepatotoxicity of herbal and dietary supplements: an update. Arch Toxicol. 2015;89(6):851-865. doi:10.1007/s00204-015-1471-3

  3. MedlinePlus. Pennyroyal. Updated February 13, 2020.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Consumer advisory: kava-containing dietary supplements may be associated with severe liver injury. Published March 25, 2002.

  5. Harvey J, Colin-Jones DG. Mistletoe hepatitis. Br Med J. 1981;282(6259):186-187. doi:10.1136/bmj.282.6259.186

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