A disturbing trend is arising among horse owners interested in “natural” remedies: herbal liver-cleansing products. These types of products won’t actually help your horse and actually can be harmful.
Our concern about this new fad mounted when two owners reported their horses developed mild depression and decreased appetite, along with elevated liver enzymes, after being on herbal liver-cleansing products in hopes of “detoxifying” them.
The whole idea of liver cleansing borders on ridiculous, since one of the liver’s main functions is to detoxify poisons the body ingests. However, someone may tempt you to use one of these remedies. Before you do, get the facts.
Herbal liver cleansing dates back to the early 1900s. Since that time, research has shown that, while a variety of herbs fall under the umbrella of “liver cleansing,” they vary in what they actually do. In addition, many chemicals/toxins aren’t dangerous in their original form, but it’s the inflammation caused by the metabolized forms produced by the liver that does the damage.
Milk thistle, dandelion root and tumeric may help protect a healthy liver, but they don’t remove any toxins. Those that are said to “stimulate bile production” do so because they are mild irritants/toxins. Common liver-cleansing ingredients include:
Milk Thistle. The active principle in milk thistle is the potent antioxidant sylimarin. Its prime benefit is protecting the liver cells from oxidative damage caused by liver metabolism of various toxins or even viruses. It’s most useful before exposure, but after the fact it may help against further damage, so regenerative processes can get underway.
Dandelion Root. The root of the dandelion is said to stimulate the flow of bile. However, scientific proof is hard to come by. The chemicals claimed responsible are sesquiterpene lactones but, as a group, they may actually decrease detoxifying enzyme activity in the liver.
Tumeric. This common yellow spice may also protect the liver from a variety of toxins because of its potent antioxidant effects but, like dandelion roots, it does this by actually decreasing the level of the liver’s detoxifying enzyme activity.
Yellow Dock. This common ingredient “cleanses” all right but not like you might imagine. The active chemical, anthraquinones, is the same as in X-Lax. It “cleanses” by mild irritant actions on the liver and bowel. It doesn’t do anything to remove toxins.
Many other herbs may be found in cleansing mixes. Some are specific for the liver, while some are not. Some are safe, while some are not, especially in horses with underlying liver or kidney disease.
Older or ill horses should have liver and kidney function tests before using any of these herbs, as should any horse that becomes ill or depressed when taking them.
Some detoxifying chemicals do actually bind to toxins and facilitate their removal from the body, but these so-called “liver-cleansing” herbs aren’t among them.