Silymarin (Milk Thistle): How Effective and Safe is it?

Silymarin (Milk Thistle): how Effective and Safe is it?

Milk thistle extract, an herbal remedy since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, is today one of the most popular herbal supplements, with U.S. retail sales of nearly nine million dollars. Benefits of silymarin use before and during toxic insults to the liver, including damage from alcohol; cancer chemotherapy and other drugs; solvents; and mushroom poisoning.


Milk thistle, sold as capsules and tablets, belongs to the same family of plants as ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold, and daisy. It contains a substance called silymarin, found in the fruit, which is believed to be responsible for any medicinal properties. Studies show silymarin, silibinin, and other flavonoids found in milk thistle may benefit in a number of conditions including alcoholic cirrhosis and tumors. Many compounds in milk thistle, for instance silibinin, have shown potent anti- prostate and anti-lung cancer activity.

Several scientific studies suggest that active substances in milk thistle (particularly silymarin) protect the liver from damage caused by viruses, toxins, alcohol, and certain drugs such as acetaminophen (a common over the counter medication used for headaches and pain; acetaminophen, also called paracetamol, can cause liver damage if taken in large quantities or by people who drink alcohol regularly).Study at the Journal of New Remedies & Clinics in Japan suggested that the functional food contains the extract from Silybum marianum is effective in the eating and drinking habit related liver dysfunctions.

Silymarin (Silybum marianum [L.] Gaertn [Asteraceae]) is a promising agent for cancer prevention, adjuvant cancer treatment, and reduction of iatrogenic toxicity. It is safe and free of serious adverse side effectsExtracts from the seeds of milk thistle, Silybum marianum, is known commonly as silibinin and silymarin and possesses anticancer actions on human prostate carcinoma.When injected; milk thistle extract has been used successfully to treat liver failure caused by amanita mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning.

Milk thistle is believed to have protective effects on the liver and improve its function. It is typically used to treat liver cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation), and gallbladder disorders. Treatment claims also include:

Basic scientific research has uncovered the mechanisms by which some plants afford their therapeutic effects. Silybum marianum (milk thistle) has been shown to have clinical applications in the treatment of toxic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, ischemic injury, radiation toxicity, and viral hepatitis via its antioxidative, anti-lipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, and liver regenerating effects.

This formula has been seen to improve bowel regularity and stool consistency in individuals with this type of alternating presentation. This is due to the astringent nature of the Dandelion Root combined with the softening and moistening nature of the Milk Thistle. Milk Thistle is both a demulcent and it stimulates bile flow, it is a natural for treating a wide array of Gall Bladder diseases and Symptoms. Milk Thistle can calm down an inflamed Gall Bladder while at the same time clearing out any stagnation that might be present.

Silymarin, the active substance found in milk thistle seeds, has been studied in laboratory research. These studies have shown that it acts as an antioxidant by:

"The clinical potential for a liver-protective supplement in cancer care is significant, as I've observed in many years of integrative medical practice," writes Dr. Keith Block, ICT editor. "Several chemotherapy drugs, as well as many of the other drugs cancer patients take, have extremely problematic liver toxicities. With this exclusive edition, the scientific community will have a resource to guide and inspire further research on silymarin very interesting herbal medicine."

In the May 2007 issue of Gastroenterology, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle reported that silymarin exerts anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects, and suggest that complementary and alternative medicine-based approaches may assist in the management of patients with chronic hepatitis C. Silymarin reduces oxidative stress and improves immune function thus causing liver damage to be reduced.

Dr. Michael Wargovich (University of South Carolina) focused on the prevention of colon cancer with botanical supplements, including gingko biloba, tumeric (curcumin), milk thistle (silymarin), garlic, and ginseng. These herbs contain phytochemicals that may act as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents and mediate prostaglandin synthesis, but with fewer side effects and lower toxicity.

The clinical potential for a liver protective supplement (Milk thistle extract: silymarin) in cancer care is significant, because several chemotherapy drugs, as well as many of the other drugs cancer patients take, have extremely problematic liver toxicities; suggested a New York researcher. When injected intravenously, silibinin (chemical of silymarin) is thought to act as an antidote to poisoning by the deathcap mushroom, Amanita phalloides. Animal studies suggest that milk thistle extracts can also protect against many other poisonous substances, from toluene to the drug acetaminophen. One animal study suggests that milk thistle can also protect against fetal damage caused by alcohol.

Silybin, the major compound found in silymarin, has been studied in laboratory experiments using cancer cell lines (cells adapted to grow in the laboratory). These studies show that silybin:

Silymarin contains a number of active constituents called flavolignans which are also used to help protect the liver from poisoning. The herbal medicine extracted from seeds of the Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum (silymarin) is known to have antioxidant properties and research published in Phytotherapy Research shows that this extract can help people significantly lower the amount of sugar bound to hemoglobin in blood, as well as reducing fasting blood sugar levels.

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is often used for liver disorders and is widely used in Europe to treat Amanita mushroom poisoning. Studies have shown that patients with Amanita poisoning can be effectively treated with silibinin (the primary active component of milk thistle) up to 48 hours after eating the deadly mushrooms. Several reports indicate that alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant commonly found in broccoli, spinach, and beef, may be helpful in the treatment of Amanita (mushroom) poisoning, especially when combined with milk thistle ( Silybum marianum).

Herbal supplement milk thistle sold by CNCA, a leading national distributor of premium dietary supplements designed to enhance immune system function and promote general health and wellness. Dr. Weiss is considered an expert in the Arizona Heart Hospital in integrative cardiology stated that when Milk Thistle is taken with other herbs such as dandelion, artichoke, and licorice, liver protection and bile excretion (important for lowering cholesterol levels) are enhanced. And when combined with the natural compound phosphatidylcholine (fos-fa-tid-al-ko-leen), in a patented process, Milk Thistle is better absorbed and remains active in the bloodstream for greater lengths of time.

Multiple studies from Europe suggest benefits of oral milk thistle for cirrhosis. In experiments up to 5 years long, milk thistle has improved liver function and decreased the number of deaths that occur in cirrhotic patients. Several studies of oral milk thistle for hepatitis caused by viruses or alcohol report improvements in liver tests. Although these results are promising, most studies have been poorly designed. Better research is necessary before a strong recommendation can be made.

Preliminary research suggests that silybin may enhance the tumor fighting effects of cisplatin and doxorubicin when tested against breast and ovarian cancer cells. In addition, milk thistle may protect the kidneys against toxic side effects associated with cisplatin and cyclosporine, two medications that are commonly used to treat cancer.

Problems in study design (such as small numbers of participants, variations in the causes of liver disease, and differences in dosing and duration of milk thistle therapy) made it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. However, five of seven studies evaluating milk thistle for alcoholic liver disease found significant improvements in liver function. Those with the mildest form of the disease appeared to improve the most. Milk thistle was less effective for those with severe liver disease such as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is characterized by scarring and permanent, non-reversible damage to the liver. It is often referred to as end-stage liver disease.

Among six studies of milk thistle and chronic alcoholic liver disease, four reported significant improvement in at least one measurement of liver function (i.e., aminotransferases, albumin, and/or malondialdehyde) or histologic findings with milk thistle compared with placebo, but also reported no difference between groups for other outcome measures. There were problems in assessing the evidence because of incomplete information about multiple methodologic issues, including etiology and severity of liver disease, study design, subject characteristics, and potential confounders. It is difficult to say if the lack of information reflects poor scientific quality of study methods or poor reporting quality or both.

Two studies on milk thistle presented conflicting results. One study found that milk thistle appeared to help some people with cirrhosis live longer than they would have otherwise, while another found no benefit.

No side effects were reported in the study. However, milk thistle has been reported to occasionally cause a laxative effect, upset stomach, diarrhea, bloating, and allergic reactions, according to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Drug interactions have been reported with Acetaminophen, the herb yohimbine, phentolamine, Butryrophenones or Phenothiazines, chemotherapy drugs-Cisplatin and Ifosfamide, and Cyclosporine.

Milk thistle is available in the United States as a dietary supplement.The government doesn't regulate herbal remedies as strictly as it does drugs, so quality and potency can vary from product to product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way it regulates medication. A dietary supplement can be sold with limited or no research on how well it works. If you take prescription medicines, check with your pharmacist or physician before using milk thistle.

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