Hepatitis C: Symptoms and Herbal Treatments

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Ron, a forty-year-old engineer, came into my clinic about a year ago. He had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus or by some medications and toxins. Ron needed some help treating his symptoms, which included headache, mild fatigue, and lack of appetite.

Ron told me he had a good family support system, lived in a medium-sized city, and spent an hour commuting every workday. I listened to his health history and that of his parents, then asked about his past and current habits. I was particularly interested in whether he had been at risk for the hepatitis C virus. Risk factors for hepatitis C include blood transfusions or sharing intravenous needles, but Ron had not developed his disease either of these ways.

I next asked Ron how he had treated his liver during the last twenty years. He told me that he had been a heavy drinker for more than ten years, but now drank only one to two times a week. He took aspirin several times a week for headaches and drank a cup or two of coffee in the morning. He also drank colas almost daily. He had stopped eating red meat a few years before, depending more on chicken and fish for protein.

Ron complained about periods of irritability that he couldn’t explain, a sure sign of liver stress, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. I noticed that one of his eyes was a bit bloodshot, and he confirmed that his eyes were often dry, especially at night. In traditional medicine systems, the eyes are closely linked to liver health. His pulse felt like a taut string under my fingers and his tongue was bright red on the sides, two signs that, to the practitioner of Chinese medicine, indicate that the liver is congested and affected by excess “heat”. In Western terms, this might mean blood is not moving smoothly through the liver because of constricted blood vessels, impeding the removal of toxins from the blood. The liver might be susceptible to “microinflammation” because it becomes increasingly stimulated as it tries to deal with an increased workload of detoxification and processing of proteins and fats. I diagnosed “liver qi (energy) stagnation” and “liver fire rising”.

A mystery virus

Hepatitis C affects about four million people every year in the United States and is the most common cause of chronic hepatitis worldwide. It can lead to cirrhosis and death. In many cases, the disease is not discovered until it is well-established. In fact, ­hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States. Mickey Mantle was a well-known sufferer of hepatitis C.

Not much is known about this virus. It was “discovered” in 1989, when the old designation “non-A, non-B” hep­atitis was formally recognized as hepatitis C. It often takes years after infection for an individual to develop its major symptoms, including headaches, body pain, mild fatigue, and depression. Some people with hepatitis C never develop symptoms. Besides drug users and those who have had transfusions, health-care workers are also at risk, as is anyone dealing with blood, including tattoo artists. It is very rare that hep­atitis C can be sexually transmitted and to date there has been no evidence that the virus can be transmitted between mother and child through breastfeeding. One group of researchers from China report that they found the virus in semen, menstrual blood, and saliva, but these sera do not seem to be effective vehicles for transmission. As always, safe sex is recommended.

Up to 40 percent of people diagnosed with the hepatitis C virus have no known risk factors. From 80 to 90 percent of hepatitis C sufferers never experience symptoms.

Western physicians usually treat the disease with daily injections of the drug interferon, which can produce unpleasant side effects that are worse than the actual hepatitis C symptoms. Inter­feron is an effective treatment for only 10 to 15 percent of patients taking it for six months, and for only 20 to 25 percent of patients after a year of use. Many patients relapse after discontinuing the medicine and have to be re-treated.

Another approach

In the early 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, I twice had hepatitis A, also known as infectious hepatitis. While I was searching for an effective antidote for my illness, I read an article in a European medical journal about milk thistle (Silymarin marianum) and its remarkable healing and protective effect on the liver. I canvassed natural food stores and pharmacies in the United States for a milk thistle product to take, but it wasn’t available. My next strategy was to search in the wild. I’m a botanist, and I knew the plant as a common weed growing all over California.

I began to harvest the seeds and make extracts from them. After using milk thistle for a few months, I knew I was on the right track because my digestion had improved dramatically. In the mid-1980s, I started an herb com­pany to make milk thistle available to more people. In 1984 I wrote my first booklet on the herb, Milk Thistle, The Liver Herb (Botanica, 1995, revised edition).

The liver is the body’s main organ of detoxification, but our livers are under major stress these days. Harsh or toxic substances such as alcoholic beverages, powerful pharmaceuticals, and recreational drugs put a great burden on this vital organ. The number of people coming to my clinic for hepatitis C treatment has increased during the past few years, but I have seen positive results with a healthful diet plan and the use of herbs. In my experience, this natural approach is at least as effective as interferon therapy, but with fewer side effects and the added benefit of being good for the body’s overall health.

A healthful liver diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, and organic chicken. It is best to avoid spicy foods, fried foods, foods high in refined sugar and alcohol, and stimulants such as coffee and cola drinks. Because red meat is a heating, stimulating food, I suggest using it in small amounts only once or twice a week if desired, or avoid it altogether.

I have especially positive results when I include milk thistle in a liver-healing program because it can protect the liver and cleanse it of free radicals. When my patients follow a regimen that includes a healthy diet and draws upon herbs, they generally look and feel better–sometimes better than they have in years. Patients seem to have more energy, and they say that they think more clearly.

Cooling the fire

In Ron’s case, I first encouraged him to take note of any foods, beverages, or habits that could aggravate his condition or “create heat” in his liver. He agreed to increase his daily intake of fresh vegetables, fruits, and Adzuki and mung beans, particularly good foods for strengthening the liver. Ron had a vegetable juicer, so I recommended that he make a combination of carrot, celery, parsley, cucumber, and beet juices and drink a 6- to 8-ounce glass of the mixture four or five days a week. I also recommended that he follow the basic herbal program for hepatitis C, which is outlined below. It includes the use of milk thistle standardized to 80 percent silymarin.

• Milk thistle extract, 100 to 400 mg twice daily
• Shiitake extract, 1 to 3 g daily (Shii­take can be costly, so consider this addition highly recommended but optional.)
• Antioxidants (to be taken morning and evening, with meals):
• Vitamin E, 400 to 800 IU daily
• Vitamin C, 2 g daily
• Grape seed extract, 200 to 400 mg daily

Additionally, I advised Ron to cook frequently with liver-protecting herbs (ginger, turmeric, or schisandra, for example), antiviral herbs (such as garlic), and immune-strengthening remedies (including shiitake) to provide excellent support for the liver healing program.

After several months of following this regimen, Ron’s liver enzymes have returned to normal and he is feeling much better.

At my California clinic, we hope to start a clinical trial this fall comparing the herbal and nutritional program with a placebo and with interferon in treating hepatitis C. I’ll report back with the results this time next year.

Centuries-old medical kit filled with herbs found near Santa Fe

A seventeenth-century medical kit holding more than twenty-five types of herbs has been found in the U.S. Southwest.

Researchers at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe found bundled stems, roots, and other plant material in two woven baskets stuck inside a dry rock crevice southeast of Santa Fe in the Galisteo Basin, according to a recent edition of Science News.

The researchers identified at least twenty-six different types of nonedible plants in the baskets. Roots of two potentially toxic plants–wild iris and jimson weed–were found, along with pieces of osha root (a multipurpose medicine), silvery scurf pea (used as a deodorant), gayfeather (reputed to be a treatment for throat ailments), and other herbs.

Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his nearly thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist.

“Case studies from an herbalist’s notebook” are not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.

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