During the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, Ayurvedic herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies were promoted as immune boosters (IBs) and disease-preventive agents. This happened in most parts of the world but nowhere more intensely than in India.

The present study examined the clinical outcomes among patients with chronic liver disease who presented with complications of portal hypertension or liver dysfunction temporally associated with the use of IBs in the absence of other competing causes. This Indian single-center retrospective observational cohort study included patients with chronic liver disease admitted for the evaluation and management of jaundice, ascites, or hepatic encephalopathy temporally associated with the consumption of IBs and followed up for 180 days. Chemical analysis was performed on the retrieved IBs.

From April 2020 to May 2021, 1022 patients with cirrhosis were screened, and 178 (19.8%) were found to have consumed complementary and alternative medicines. Nineteen patients with cirrhosis (10.7%), jaundice, ascites, hepatic encephalopathy, or their combination related to IBs use were included. The patients were predominantly male (89.5%). At admission, 14 (73.75%) patients had jaundice, 9 (47.4%) had ascites, 2 (10.5%) presented with acute kidney injury, and 1 (5.3%) had overt encephalopathy. Eight patients (42.1%) died at the end of the follow-up period. Hepatic necrosis and portal-based neutrophilic inflammation were the predominant features of liver biopsies.

Ten samples of IBs, including locally made ashwagandha powder, giloy juice, Indian gooseberry extracts, pure giloy tablets, multiherbal immune-boosting powder, other multiherbal tablets, and the homeopathic remedy, Arsenicum album 30C, were retrieved from our study patients. Samples were analyzed for potential hepatotoxic prescription drugs, known hepatotoxic adulterants, pesticides, and insecticides, which were not present in any of the samples. Detectable levels of arsenic (40%), lead (60%), and mercury (60%) were found in the samples analyzed. A host of other plant-derived compounds, industrial solvents, chemicals, and anticoagulants was identified using GC–MS/MS. These include glycosides, terpenoids, phytosteroids, and sterols, such as sitosterol, lupeol, trilinolein, hydroxy menthol, methoxyphenol, butyl alcohol, and coumaran derivatives.

The authors concluded that Ayurvedic and Homeopathic supplements sold as IBs potentially cause the worsening of preexisting liver disease. Responsible dissemination of scientifically validated, evidence-based medical health information from regulatory bodies and media may help ameliorate this modifiable liver health burden.

The authors comment that Ayurvedic herbal supplements and homeopathic remedies sold as IBs, potentially induce idiosyncratic liver injury in patients with preexisting liver disease. Using such untested advertised products can lead to the worsening of CLD in the form of liver failure or portal hypertension events, which are associated with a high risk of mortality compared to those with severe AH-related liver decompensation in the absence of timely liver transplantation. Severe mixed portal inflammation and varying levels of hepatic necrosis are common findings on liver histopathology in IB-related liver injury. Health regulatory authorities and print and visual media must ensure the dissemination of responsible and factual scientific evidence-based information on herbal and homeopathic “immune boosters” and health supplements to the public, specifically to the at-risk patient population.

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