What is Milk Thistle?
Milk Thistle is an herbal supplement that detoxifies and protects vital liver functions and more. Milk thistle has been used for over 2,000 years as a natural treatment for liver disorders. The plant is known in scientific circles as the Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertner (syn. Cardous marianus), but it is more commonly known as “milk thistle,” “St. Mary Thistle,” “Holy Thistle” and “Lady's Thistle.” It is an herbaceous annual or biennial plant belonging to the Asteraceae family that can grow to be ten feet tall with flowers that are red and purple in colour.
Milk thistle gets its name from the milky white fluid that comes from the plant's leaves when they are crushed. It is native to southern Europe, southern Russia, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and has also been naturalized to North and South America.
Europeans were among the first to use milk thistle seeds as an herbal treatment for liver disorders. However, the plant's remedial capabilities have been known since ancient times. Milk Thistle was mentioned by Theophrastus in the 4th century B.C. by the name of “Pternix” and it was also referred to by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century A.D. by the name of “Sillybum.” Additionally, in 1744, Von Haller documented the specific use of the plant for liver disorders in its "Medizinischen Lexicon." In more recent years, many authors such as Johann Gottfried Rademacher, Volker Schulz, and Henry Leclerc mention the benefits of Silybum Marianum (milk thistle) when used as a treatment of liver diseases as well as in the treatment of disorders of the bile duct and spleen.
What are the Benefits of Milk Thistle?
Over the past forty years, intensive chemical, pharmacological and clinical research has confirmed the mechanisms of action and therapeutic value of milk thistle in a wide range of human liver-related and non-liver-related conditions. Literally hundreds of modern research studies have confirmed the remarkable ability of milk thistle to protect the liver and the body against virtually all types of damage.
Additionally, the United States National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have catalogued more than 400 scientific studies of milk thistle and its active compounds in their medicine database. These studies reflect what generations past knew and depended on – that milk thistle is one of the most valuable and beneficial herbal remedies and treatments available anywhere in the world.
Today, milk thistle is still one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world and is also the number one recommended natural herb for liver health. In fact, in Europe, milk thistle is a prescribed medication. The milk thistle extract is prescribed to treat mushroom poisoning, alcoholic cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis, drug and alcohol-induced liver damage and acute viral hepatitis, just to name a few.
Milk thistle extract is used to maintain liver health and to protect the liver from the effects of toxins such as alcohol, a polluted environment or workplace, and a host of liver related diseases.
Liver related conditions indicating the use of milk thistle are varied, including, but not limited to:
Chronic active hepatitis
Drug and alcohol induced liver damage
Acute viral hepatitis
Fatty liver, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
Fibrosis and Cirrhosis
Hepatic toxicity caused by steroid usage
Environmental sensitivities and toxins
A medical condition that necessitates the use of hepatotoxic medications
Regular moderate-to-heavy alcohol use
Additionally, experimental and clinical studies suggest that milk thistle extracts also have the following non-liver related benefits:
Lowers cholesterol levels, which benefits the heart
Reduces the growth of cancer cells in breast, lung, colon, prostate, cervical and renal cancers
Functions as a therapeutic agent for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease
Improves blood sugar levels
Contains numerous anti-aging properties
Reduces cell damage caused by radiation and chemotherapy treatments
Supplements sunscreen protection and may be useful against multiple types of skin disease
Works as a free radical scavenger and powerful antioxidant
Reduces hot flashes and other related menopausal symptoms
Helps with intestinal / indigestion issues
Reduces the effects of deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning
How Does Milk Thistle Work?
Milk thistle seeds contain a bioflavonoid complex known as silymarin. Silymarin, which is the active ingredient in milk thistle, is simply the purified extract of the fruits (seeds) of the milk thistle plant. It is responsible for the main medical benefits of the milk thistle plant, and it is made up of three main flavonoids:
silybin - also know as silibinin
silydianin - also known as silidianin
silychristin - also know as silicristin
Silybin makes up 50% - 70% of silymarin and has been shown in clinical studies to be the most biologically active and beneficial constituent of the milk thistle extract, silymarin.
Double blind studies on the effect of milk thistle on toxic liver damage (mostly alcohol-related), chronic liver disease and disease caused by certain drugs have been reviewed by medical experts. The experts all concluded that milk thistle is an extremely therapeutically useful medicinal plant product that stabilizes the cell membrane and stimulates protein synthesis while accelerating the process of regeneration in damaged liver tissue. These effects are important in the therapeutic efficacy of milk thistle.
According to other studies, milk thistle may protect the cells of the liver by blocking the entrance of harmful toxins and helping remove these toxins from liver cells. As with other flavonoids, milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant which works to maintain health and energy by protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and lipid peroxidation, which can injure healthy cells and tissues. Just as grapes and red wine, for example, are touted as excellent sources of antioxidants, milk thistle also contains the properties needed to offer the body the same antioxidant benefits.
What are the Side Effects of Milk Thistle?
One of the best things about milk thistle is its gentle nature. Compared to many other supplements and herbal remedies that bring with them side effects such as headaches, virtually all parts of the milk thistle plant have been used with no reports of toxicity. Adverse effects in clinical and lab studies related specifically to the seed extract (silymarin) are also virtually nonexistent, although it may have a mild and short-lived laxative effect for some people. Milk thistle can be used safely and effectively by a wide range of people, including pregnant and nursing women.
MILK THISTLE PROTECTS AND REPAIRS KIDNEY DAMAGE
A recent study demonstrated the efficacy of using milk thistle in the treatment of kidney damage (nephropathy) due to diabetes.
Another recent study demonstrated protection against cisplatin chemotherapy-induced nephropathy.
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The efficacy of Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (silymarin) in the treatment of type II diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial
H. Fallah Huseini1,*, B. Larijani2, R. Heshmat2,
H. Fakhrzadeh2, B. Radjabipour2, T. Toliat3 and
Oxidative stresses are increasingly implicated in the pathogenesis of diabetic complications which may either cause direct pancreatic β-cell damage or lead to metabolic abnormalities that can induce or aggravate diabetes. The valuable effect of antioxidant nutrients on the glycemic control of diabetic patients has been reported in experimental and clinical studies. The present study was designed to investigate the effects of the herbal medicine, Silybum marianum seed extract (silymarin), which is known to have antioxidant properties on the glycemic profile in diabetic patients. A 4-month randomized double-blind clinical trial was conducted in 51 type II diabetic patients in two well-matched groups. The first group (n = 25) received a silymarin (200 mg) tablet 3 times a day plus conventional therapy. The second group (n = 26) received the same therapy but a placebo tablet instead of silymarin. The patients were visited monthly and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), fasting blood glucose (FBS), insulin, total cholesterol, LDL and HDL, triglyceride, SGOT and SGPT levels were determined at the beginning and the end of the study. The results showed a significant decrease in HbA1c, FBS, total cholesterol, LDL, triglyceride SGOT and SGPT levels in silymarin treated patients compared with placebo as well as with values at the beginning of the study in each group. In conclusion, silymarin treatment in type II diabetic patients for 4 months has a beneficial effect on improving the glycemic profile
Silymarin in the Prevention and Treatment of Liver Diseases and Primary Liver Cancer
Author(s): Janos Feher and Gabriella Lengyel
Affiliation: 2nd Department of Medicine, Semmelweis University, H-1088 Budapest, Szentkiralyi str. 46, Hungary.
In chronic liver diseases caused by oxidative stress (alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases, drug- and chemical-induced hepatic toxicity), the antioxidant medicines such as silymarin can have beneficial effect. Liver cirrhosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver and steatohepatitis are risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Insulin resistance and oxidative stress are the major pathogenetic mechanisms leading the hepatic cell injury in these patients. The silymarin exerts membrane-stabilizing and antioxidant activity, it promotes hepatocyte regeneration; furthermore it reduces the inflammatory reaction, and inhibits the fibrogenesis in the liver. These results have been established by experimental and clinical trials. According to open studies the long-term administration of silymarin significantly increased survival time of patients with alcohol induced liver cirrhosis. Based on the results of studies using methods of molecular biology, silymarin can significantly reduce tumor cell proliferation, angiogenesis as well as insulin resistance. Furthermore, it exerts an anti-atherosclerotic effect, and suppresses tumor necrosis factor-alpha-induced protein production and mRNA expression due to adhesion molecules. The chemopreventive effect of silymarin on HCC has been established in several studies using in vitro and in vivo methods; it can exert a beneficial effect on the balance of cell survival and apoptosis by interfering cytokines. In addition to this, anti-inflammatory activity and inhibitory effect of silymarin on the development of metastases have also been detected. In some neoplastic diseases silymarin can be administered as adjuvant therapy as well.
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Silibinin, found in milk thistle, protects against UV-induced skin cancer
Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, shows that silibinin, found in milk thistle, protects against UVB damage and kills cells damaged by UVA — but is not at all toxic in healthy cells.
A pair of University of Colorado Cancer Center studies published this month show that the milk thistle extract, silibinin, kills skin cells mutated by UVA radiation and protects against damage by UVB radiation – thus protecting against UV-induced skin cancer and photo-aging.
“When you have a cell affected by UV radiation, you either want to repair it or kill it so that it cannot go on to cause cancer. We show that silibinin does both,” says Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, co-program leader of Cancer Prevention and Control at the CU Cancer Center and professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
The first study, published in the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology worked with human skin cells subjected to UVA radiation, which makes up about 95 percent of the sun’s radiation that reaches Earth. The Agarwal Lab treated these UVA-affected cells with silibinin. With silibinin, the rate at which these damaged cells died increased dramatically.
“When you take human skin cells – keratinocytes – and treat them with silibinin, nothing happens. It’s not toxic. But when you damage these cells with UVA radiation, treatment with silibinin kills the cells,” Agarwal says, thus removing the mutated cells that can cause skin cancer and photo-aging.
Specifically, the study shows that pretreatment with silibinin resulted in higher release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) within the UVA-exposed cells, leading to higher rates of cell death.
The second study, published this month by the same authors in the journal Molecular Carcinogenesis shows that instead of beneficially killing cells damaged by UVA radiation, treatment with silibinin protects human skill cells from damage by UVB radiation, which makes up about 5 percent of the sun’s radiation reaching Earth.
Again, remember Agarwal’s suggestion that the prevention of UV-induced skin cancer can happen in two ways: by protecting against DNA damage or by killing cells with damaged DNA. With UVA, silibinin kills; with UVB, it protects, in this case by increasing cells’ expression of the protein interleukin-12, which works to quickly repair damaged cells.
“It has been 20 years of work with this compound, silibinin,” Agarwal says. “We first noticed its effectiveness in treating both skin and solid cancers, and we now have a much more complete picture of the mechanisms that allow this compound to work.”
Agarwal and colleagues continue to test the effectiveness of silibinin in cancer prevention and treatment in cell lines and mouse models, and are working toward human trials of silibinin-based therapeutics.