Can Popular Herb Giloy Cause Liver Damage: What Is the Controversy?

What is Giloy? Why has the popular ayurvedic home remedy for COVID prevention come under fire?

Can Popular Herb Giloy Cause Liver Damage: What Is the Controversy?

To say the pandemic caught us off guard would be an understatement. We have spent the last year and a half grasping at straws trying to find ways to beat a virus we knew nothing about.

We've definitely come a long way–exhibit A, the COVID-19 vaccines–but we've also had some hits turned misses, hypes, and fads, amid the hysteria to stay a step ahead of the virus.

There was the hype around the experimental usage of drugs such as Remdesivir, Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine that were proved ineffective.

There were also some unusual, albeit interesting, hacks being touted like cow dung and copper masks.

One nuska that has been popular since the pandemic started is the herb, Giloy.

But this widely used herbal immunity booster has come under fire recently for suspicions of causing acute liver damage.


What is the controversy surrounding the Giloy herb? FIT breaks it down.

What is Giloy?

Tinospora cordifolia, colloquially known as, Giloy or Guduchi, is a herb which has been used for centuries in Ayurveda to treat a number of different ailments from fever, diabetes, asthma, and even anxiety and stress and for general wellness.

Its most notable property is that of immunity boosting.

In the raw form, the juice from the stem of the plant is usually extracted for its medicinal properties.

Giloy is also a popular component used in herbal immunity boosters and general wellness supplements.

Unpacking the Controversy

It started with a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology.

The study was conducted by researchers at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai and links 6 cases of acute liver damage in the hospital due to ingestion of the herb.

The Ministry of AYUSH weighs in

On Wednesday, however, the Union Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) released a statement refuting the study and calling it 'completely misleading'.

The statement went on to read that the efficacy of Giloy for managing various disorders has been extensively studied and scientifically proven.

A day after the statement, on Thursday, the ministry of AYUSH followed it up with a tweet reiterating that the herb did 'wonders for overall health concerns.'

But they also added that it was advisable to consult a medical practitioner before incorporating it into one's diet.

Shortcomings of the study, says AYUSH

In its statement, the ministry of AYUSH goes on to point out some 'flaws' and variables that the study fails to factor in including,

  • The dosage: It is unclear how much the patients ingested and over how long.

  • Whether the patients took the herb with other medicines.

  • The past medical history of the patients

They also claim that the study authors have not established that the herb taken by the patients were in fact Giloy, or if they may have accidentally got the herb mixed up with other possibly toxic herb.

A study conducted in 2018 found that over 35 percent of websites failed to accurately differentiate between Tinospora cordifolia (giloy) and Tinospora crispa, another similar herb known to induce hepatotoxicity.

Speaking to FIT, Dr Cyriac Abby Philips, a hepatologist from Kochi says, "this study is only a series of six patients that they have identified in Jaslok hospital, but this is not the only study. Giloy causing liver injury has been studied previously as well."

He points to a study published in the BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies that presents the case study of a 68 year old woman who developed acute hepatocellular injury while on Giloy, and how the condition reversed a month after she stopped taking it.

Can Giloy Cause Liver Damage?

On the one hand, Ayurvedic doctors maintain that the herb is not harmful. They do however also warn that the herb must be taken under the supervision of an expert.

"It's important to intake medicines with alkaloids (like Giloy) and active constituents making them of the right quality and should not be taken without expert guidance as one may not know if it’s the real herb."
Dr Smita Naram, Ayurveda Practioner and founder of Ayurshakti

Dr Naram also cautions, "It is important to note that Guduchi should not be picked from any nearby or unknown place. There are various types of Giloy herbs, which need to be formulated and consumed in different manners."

Speaking of the chemical composition of Giloy, Dr Philips says, "Giloy has a lot of chemicals–alkaloids, glycosides, terpenoids, a lot of chemicals."

While alkaloids and glycosides in plants are used to make a variety of medicines, they are also used to make poisons.

"So depending on the fraction of those chemicals, high or low in the final product, we learn, can actually cause direct liver injury," he adds.

The Immunity boosting properties of Giloy

"Giloy has the potential to modulate a person's immunity. But immune boosting may not be always beneficial for the person."
Dr Cyriac Abby Philips, hepatologist

Dr Philips points to a study that shows Giloy leads to an increase in IgG, a type of immunoglobulin in the blood.

This can be especially dangerous in those who have autoimmune disorders.

"Now, interestingly, one of the main thing we look for in a patient with autoimmune diseases is increase in IgG. Increase in IgG in the blood correlates with autoimmune hepatitis, like the authors have identified in their article, the Jaslok one," explains Dr Philips.

The Bottom Line

While there are studies that point to the immuno-boosting properties of Giloy, research and case studies also point to links with acute liver damage, jaundice and hepatitis.

Further research is still needed to fully establish the benefits and risks associated with the herb.

What's important to note, is that self-medication can be dangerous, even when it comes to ayurvedic or natural remedies.

Natural herbs used as medicines, too, have chemicals in them and can cause side effects if taken incorrectly or when it interacts with other medicines.

For instance, since giloy has the potential to lower blood sugar levels, caution is advised when taking it with blood glucose lowering medication.

One's underlying physical conditions and pre-existing ailments can also determine how the chemicals may react and affect your body.

For all these reasons it is very important to verify your sources and only take medication in prescribed doses by licenced professionals.

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