Once the news that you have hepatitis C sinks in, your thoughts will likely turn to treatment. Therapy with antiviral medicines is the only treatment proven to clear the hepatitis C virus, or HCV, from the body. But you might also be curious about complementary treatments — such as herbs, antioxidant supplements and mind-body therapies — to help manage your symptoms and improve your overall health. Although many people living with hepatitis C use a variety of complementary therapies, research proving effectiveness is generally lacking. Because some complementary treatments may not be safe for you, always talk with your doctor before starting any form of complementary therapy.
Many herbs reportedly have experimental effects that might prove beneficial to people living with hepatitis C. For example, the active ingredient in milk thistle has been shown in laboratory experiments to have antiviral effects and to combat inflammation and damage to HCV-infected liver cells, according to a 2013 Antiviral Therapy review article. However, an August 2014 report published in BioMed Research International found that when milk thistle supplements were tested in people with hepatitis C, the herb did not significantly lower the amount of HCV in the blood or reduce liver enzyme levels, a marker of liver inflammation.
Licorice root also shows anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects in laboratory experiments, but it has not proven effective for hepatitis C treatment in people. Other herbs commonly used for their immune-boosting effects, such as astragalus and echinacea, also have no proven benefits in people with hepatitis C. In fact, the National Institutes of Health states that no complementary therapy has yet been proven effective for the treatment of hepatitis C or its complications.
Much of the liver damage that occurs with hepatitis C is caused by ongoing liver inflammation and an accumulation of damaging chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide. Antioxidants are substances that neutralize these harmful, inflammatory chemicals. Although your body produces antioxidants, they are often overwhelmed when you have a chronic infection like hepatitis C. Therefore, antioxidant supplements have been proposed as possible ways to limit HCV-related liver damage.
Several supplements have antioxidant properties, including glutathione, N-acetylcysteine, S-adenosylmethionine, alpha-lipoic acid and vitamins C and E. A March 2014 report published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology noted that some small, preliminary human studies have shown N-acetylcysteine, S-adenosylmethionine and vitamin E might help slow liver scarring in people with inflammatory liver diseases. However, it remains unclear whether antioxidant supplements are beneficial for people with hepatitis C.
Troublesome symptoms like tiredness, difficulty sleeping, stress, anxiety, body pain and having trouble concentrating are common when you’re living with hepatitis C. These symptoms often interfere with daily tasks and reduce your ability to enjoy life. Mind-body therapies — such prayer, meditation, biofeedback, yoga, tai chi, qigong, guided imagery, acupuncture, healing touch and creative therapies — might help alleviate some of these symptoms. There are no guarantees, however, as research is lacking and benefits have not been proven. Despite the absence of proven benefits, if you feel better when you write in a journal, pray, meditate or participate in some other form of mind-body therapy, these activities may be helpful — as long as what you’re doing is safe and not potentially harmful to you.
Hepatitis C is a serious and potentially life-threatening illness. Because your liver can be severely damaged by HCV without causing serious symptoms, it’s very important to receive regular medical care from a qualified health care professional. Do not try to manage hepatitis C on your own.
Some supplements should not be taken because they may be harmful to your liver or overall health, including:
- colloidal silver
- kava kava
- green tea extract
Always check with your doctor before beginning any complementary therapy to be sure it’s safe for you. Also be sure to tell all of your health care providers about all therapies you’re using to be sure they don’t interfere with one another.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine: Hepatitis C: A Focus on Dietary Supplements
- Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use in Chronic Liver Disease Patients
- Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice: The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by Patients with Chronic Hepatitis C
- Antiviral Therapy: Silymarin for Hepatitis C Virus Infection
- BioMed Research International: Effects and Tolerance of Silymarin (Milk Thistle) in Chronic Hepatitis C Virus Infection Patients: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials
- PLoS ONE: Antiviral Activity of Glycyrrhizin against Hepatitis C Virus In Vitro
- Journal of Viral Hepatitis: Glycyrrhizin in Patients Who Failed Previous Interferon Alpha-Based Therapies: Biochemical and Histological Effects After 52 Weeks
- NCCIH Clinical Digest: Hepatitis C and Dietary Supplements: What the Science Says
- Alternative Medicine Review: Astragalus Membranaceus
- Alternative Medicine Review: Echinacea