Herbal hepatotoxicity: a hidden epidemic

Intern Emerg Med. 2013 Feb;8(1):13-22. doi: 10.1007/s11739-012-0777-x. Epub 2012 Apr 4.


Complementary and alternative therapies, including herbal products, have become increasingly popular in the general population and among patients and physicians. Regulations and pharmacovigilance regarding herbal drugs are still incomplete and need to be improved. In fact, herbals are commonly marketed on the Internet, and in many countries they are sold as food supplements, which are beyond the control of drug regulatory agencies. In Europe and the U.S., reports of hepatotoxicity from these products, including those advertised for liver diseases, are accumulating. Many herbal drugs are also commonly used in children, and in women during pregnancy and lactation, because they are believed to be "natural" and, therefore, "harmless." One emerging problem is people preferring herbal-based slimming aids to conventional dietary and physical activity. In Italy, the use of non-conventional therapies has been reported for 13.6 % of the population, and 3.7 % freely use herbal drugs, unaware of the risks associated with a potential interaction with prescription drugs. In our review, we discuss the problem of the lack of standardization of herbal drugs, the lack of randomized clinical trials regarding the majority of these products, the unawareness of risks by the patients who buy and use them, and, further, the problem of underreporting. For the most commonly used herbal products and slimming aids, we describe their potential hepatotoxicity mechanisms, the causality assessment necessary for a correct diagnosis, and the clinical patterns for which these products seem to be responsible.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / diagnosis
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / etiology*
  • Dietary Supplements / adverse effects
  • Herb-Drug Interactions
  • Humans
  • Phytotherapy / adverse effects*