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Milk Thistle: Ancient Healer

Related to artichokes, daisies, and sunflowers, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been a popular healing agent for more than 2,000 years. Its seeds contain a variety of substances called silymarins, of which silibinin has been a topic of research lately.

Love Your Liver

“Our modern environment is full of stressful chemicals [including] food additives and pesticides,” says third-generation herbalist Christopher Hobbs, LAc.

As a primary organ of detoxification, the liver takes plenty of hits. Silymarins in milk thistle extract (MTE) not only enhance the liver’s detoxification capacity but also protect the liver by keeping toxins out of its cells.

MTE protects the liver by scavenging free radicals, inhibiting oxidation of fats, and reducing the development of fibrous tissue in the liver. In addition to milk thistle’s preventive powers, clinical trials show that concentrated MTE benefits people with chronic inflammatory liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and toxic liver damage. Germany’s Commission E (roughly comparable to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) concludes this herb is safe and effective for “toxic liver damage and for supportive treatment in chronic inflammatory liver disease and hepatic cirrhosis.”

Additional therapeutic monographs by the World Health Organization also cite the therapeutic value of MTE.

“Every person with hepatitis C should consider silymarin” advises Donald J. Brown, ND, although it’s critical to work with an experienced healthcare provider for treatment.

In addition to its strong antioxidant effect, milk thistle increases RNA synthesis in helping to rebuild liver tissue. “Furthermore, the liver is an important organ in the digestion of fat, which is usually overabundant in the modern diet,” Hobbs adds.

Milk thistle lowers cholesterol, preventing artery-blocking plaque and lowering the cholesterol content of bile—important in the prevention of gallstones. It also appears to raise levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

More Protection

Milk thistle also supports the kidneys in ways that “closely mirror the herb’s effects on the liver,” researchers report. For example, silymarins stimulate protein synthesis and cell regeneration in the kidneys as well as the liver. This herb also appears to improve blood sugar control in Type 2 diabetes.

Both in vitro and in vivo research suggests that milk thistle may prevent and possibly help treat a variety of cancers. Experimental studies show the following benefits from milk thistle:

  • inhibits prostate cancer cells
  • reduces the frequency of drug-induced colon adenocarcinomas
  • inhibits growth and enhances regression of skin tumors with topical application
  • slows growth and DNA synthesis in breast and cervical cancer cells
  • inhibits proliferation of leukemia cells and possibly even lung cancer
  • helps lower the incidence of bladder neoplasms. 

The latest research suggests that silibinin is a potent antioxidant that modulates the insulin-like growth factor system, as well as potentially fighting the spread of cancer. This herb may even help relieve inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.

Milk thistle also appears to offer neuroprotective benefits. Some herbalists report its positive effects on carpal tunnel (repetitive stress) syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and myalgias.

How to Use MTE

Because silymarin is not well absorbed in the digestive tract, most scientific studies use a concentrated extract standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent of this substance. While both clinical experience and research suggest that improvement can occur in as early as eight weeks, no one should ever attempt to self-diagnose or self-treat liver disease.

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