What about Complementary Therapies?

Some people seek out complementary or alternative ways to treat their Hepatitis C.  Complementary and alternative medicine, known as CAM, includes a variety of interventions.  Some common complementary therapies include the following:

Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and visualization

  • These focus on how a person’s mind and imagination can promote overall health and well-being.

Physical techniques, such as massage, yoga, and tai chi

  • These focus on using a person’s body and senses to promote healing and well-being.

Herbal medicine

  • These are substances that come from plants. They can be taken from all parts of a plant, including the leaves, roots, flowers and berries.

These therapies, which are based on different traditions and disciplines, are generally considered to be outside the realm of conventional Western medicine.  When used with conventional medicine, they are referred to as “complementary.”  When used instead of conventional medicine, they are considered “alternative.”

Generally, physical and relaxation therapies are safe.  However, some complementary medicines (like herbs, mega-vitamins, and other dietary supplements) can be dangerous, particularly for people who have liver disease. Many people use complementary medicines because they believe that it’s “natural” and therefore healthy and harmless.  But natural does not equal healthy or safe.  Poison ivy is natural, but it’s certainly not harmless.

Unlike conventional medical treatments – which are tested and regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) – most complementary therapies have undergone very little, if any, scientific study.  And since herbal medicines are not subject to the same regulations as prescription medicines, the amount of medication in a pill or other quantity of herbal medicine can vary in potency by five, ten or one hundred fold from one brand to another and there’s no way of you knowing what that factor is.

So while some products may be safe others may actually pose significant risks – for example, by producing serious side effects or interacting badly with other medications you’re taking.

Studies have looked at the use of CAM among people with Hepatitis C.  A survey of 1,145 participants in the HALT-C (Hepatitis C Antiviral Long-Term Treatment Against Cirrhosis) trial found that 23 percent of participants were using a variety of herbal products, the most common being silymarin (milk thistle). Another study, which surveyed 120 adults with Hepatitis C, found that many used a variety of complementary health approaches, including multivitamins, herbal remedies, massage, deep breathing exercises, meditation, progressive relaxation, and yoga.

Fortunately, a greater effort is being made to find ways to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of various types of CAM through the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) – formerly called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine – a center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The following section summarizes some key findings from the NCCIH about the use of dietary supplements in people with Hepatitis C:

  • No dietary supplement has been shown to be effective for Hepatitis C or its complications.
  • The results of research supported by the NIH have shown that silymarin, the active extract of milk thistle – and the most popular complementary health product taken by people with liver disease – was no more effective than placebo in people with Hepatitis C.
    • A 2012 controlled clinical trial showed that two higher-than-usual doses of silymarin were no better than placebo in reducing the high blood levels of an enzyme that indicates liver damage.  In the study, 154 people who hadn’t responded to standard antiviral treatment for chronic Hepatitis C were randomly assigned to receive 420 mg of silymarin, 700 mg of silymarin, or placebo three times per day for 24 weeks.  At the end of the treatment period, blood levels of the enzyme that indicates liver damage were similar in all three groups. Refer here for more information.
  • Colloidal silver is sometimes promoted for treating Hepatitis C, but there’s currently no research to support its use for this purpose, and it is not safe.  Colloidal silver can cause serious side effects, including a permanent bluish discoloration of the skin called argyia.
  • Research on other dietary supplements for Hepatitis C, such as zinc, licorice root (or its extract glycyrrhizin), SAMe, and lactoferrin, is in its early stages, and no firm conclusions can be reached about the potential effectiveness of these supplements.

For more detailed information about Hepatitis C and complementary therapies, you can visit the NCCIH website.

This page has been updated and medically reviewed September 2015.