Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been used for 2,000 years as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, particularly liver, kidney, and gall bladder problems. Several scientific studies suggest that substances in milk thistle (especially a flavonoid called silymarin) protect the liver from toxins, including certain drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), which can cause liver damage in high doses. Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it may help the liver repair itself by growing new cells.
Liver disease from alcohol
Milk thistle is often suggested as a treatment for alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. Most studies show that milk thistle improves liver function and increases survival in people with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis.
Milk thistle is widely used in the treatment of viral hepatitis (particularly hepatitis C). Some found improvements in liver function, while others did not. In one study of 16 patients who didn’t respond to interferon and ribavirin therapy, milk thistle significantly reduced the viral load of hepatitis C. In 7 of the subjects the virus decreased to undetectable levels after 14 days of therapy.
Based on traditional use, milk thistle has been used as an emergency antidote to poisoning by death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies have found that milk thistle extract completely counteracts the toxic effects of the mushroom when given within 10 minutes of ingestion. If given within 24 hours, it significantly reduces the risk of liver damage and death.
Early laboratory studies also suggest that silymarin and other active substances in milk thistle may have anticancer effects. These substances appear to stop cancer cells from dividing and reproducing, shorten their lifespan, and reduce blood supply to tumors. Some studies suggest silymarin may favorably supplement sunscreen protection and may help reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Milk thistle is native to the Mediterranean region. It is now found throughout the world. This stout thistle usually grows in dry, sunny areas. The spiny stems branch at the top, and reach a height of 5 – 10 feet. The leaves are wide, with white blotches or veins. Milk thistle gets its name from the milky white sap that comes from the leaves when they are crushed. The flowers are red purple. The small, hard skinned fruit is brown, spotted, and shiny. Milk thistle spreads quickly (it is considered a weed in some parts of the world), and it matures quickly, in less than a year.
What’s It Made Of?
The active ingredient — the one that protects the liver — in milk thistle is known as silymarin, a chemical extracted from the seeds. Silymarin is actually a group of flavonoids (silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin), which are thought to help repair liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances. Silymarin also keeps new liver cells from being destroyed by these same toxins. It reduces inflammation (which is why it is often suggested for people with liver inflammation or hepatitis) and is a strong antioxidant.
Most milk thistle products are standardized preparations made from the seeds of the plant. Most preparations are standardized to contain 70 – 80% of silymarin.
Capsules of standardized dried herb (each capsule contains about 120 – 140 mg silymarin)
Silymarin phosphatidylcholine complex
A few studies show that a silymarin-phosphatidylcholine complex may be absorbed more easily than regular standardized milk thistle. Phosphatidylcholine is a key element in cell membranes. It helps silymarin attach easily to cell membranes, which may keep toxins from getting inside liver cells. People who have alcohol-related liver disease should avoid alcohol extracts.