Originally published August 27 2008
Milk Thistle: The Herb for Liver Health and More
by Barbara L. Minton
(NaturalNews) Milk thistle has long been a staple of natural healers who use it to promote liver health. Taken as a spring and fall tonic, milk thistle strengthens the liver, protects liver cells from incoming toxins and allows it to process and release toxins that are already there. It also acts as an anti-depressant, helping to move stagnant liver energy. Milk thistle also soothes and moistens mucous membranes, offering remedy for kidney and bladder irritation as well as inflammation of the skin. This lubricating effect makes milk thistle a mild natural laxative as well.
Supplementing with milk thistle has a long history among Europeans who have used it to protect their livers from the effects of alcohol and environmental pollution. It is approved by the German Commission E Monographs to treat alcoholic cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis, drug and alcohol induced liver damage, and other diseases such as acute viral hepatitis.
The milk thistle ingredient that most people believe to be responsible for its medicinal properties is the flavonoid complex called silymarin. Silymarin is found in the fruit of the milk thistle plant. Silymarin from milk thistle is also an extremely effective antioxidant, fighting the destructive processes of oxidation in the body. Studies suggest that silymarin can prevent free radicals from damaging liver cells.
Silymarin is also an active agent against cancer. Recent investigations and molecular studies have established the cancer chemopreventive role of silymarin in both in vivo and in vitro models.
According to a study published in the May 8, 2008 edition of Cancer Letter, silymarin modulates imbalance between cell survival and apoptosis. Apoptosis is the programmed death of cells. When cells do not die as programmed there is risk of tumor formation. Silymarin carries out its role by interfering with the expression of cell cycle regulators and proteins involved in apoptosis. In addition, silymarin shows anti-inflammatory as well as anti-metastatic activity. Further, the protective effects of silymarin and its major active constituent, silibinin, studied in various tissues, suggest a clinical application in cancer patients as an adjunct to established therapies, to prevent or reduce chemotherapy as well radiotherapy induced toxicity.
A study from the European Journal of Cancer, April, 2008 found that silibinin possesses cancer chemopreventive properties in rodent models of carcinogenesis. Researchers tested the hypothesis that silibinin, or silibinin formulated with phospholipids would delay tumor formation in mice with genetic models of prostate or intestinal malignancies respectively. Intervention with silibinin formulated with phospholipids reduced the size of well differentiated adenocarcinomas by 31%. Silibinin and silibinin formulated with phospholipids decreased the incidence of poorly differentiated carcinomas by 61% compared to mice on control diets. The silibinin formulation decreased plasma levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1 by 36%.
Another study, from the March 15, 2008 Journal of Cancer Research investigated in vivo efficacy and associated biomarkers and mechanism of silibinin against human colorectal carcinoma xenograft growth. Mice implanted with the growth and treated with silibinin, showed tumor growth inhibition of 48% compared to controls. A combination of silibinin and phytosome resulted in decreased proliferation by 40%, increased apoptotic index by nearly double, and reduced micro-vessel density by 36% compared to controls.
How milk thistle works
Milk thistle, provides protection to liver cells by stabilizing and guarding the cell membranes. It alters the structure of the outer cell membrane so as to prevent the penetration of liver toxins into the interior cell. By reducing the rate at which the liver absorbs harmful substances, toxins are excreted through the kidneys before they are able to damage the liver. A dramatic example of this is the ability of milk thistle to block poisons from the deathcap mushroom, a notorious liver toxin.
In a study, physicians rated the results after a group of 49 patients with deathcap mushroom poisoning were given injections of silibinin (20 mg/kg daily). All of the treated patients survived, even though they were treated from 24 to 36 hours after their poisoning, when liver and kidney damage had already occurred. The usual death rate from deathcap poisoning is 30 to 40 percent of patients. In a similar manner, Milk thistle detoxifies chemicals that enter our bodies from environmental sources, alcohol consumption, heavy metals, medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, and drugs.
Silymarin exerts its powerful antioxidant properties by combining and neutralizing harmful free radicals resulting from metabolic processes and from the process of detoxification. Silymarin also helps increase levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD), two antioxidants made naturally in the body. Silymarin may increase the content of glutathione in the liver and intestines by as much as 50 percent. It also increases the activity of SOD in red and white blood cells. In the stomach and intestines, silymarin has a role in the treatment of inflammatory conditions such as colitis and ulcers.
Milk thistle helps repair damaged cells and generate new ones when needed. It accomplishes this by stimulating vital protein synthesis through the enzyme RNA polymerase I. Silibinin may be the agent of this process, functioning by imitating a steroid hormone. In a study, silybin increased protein synthesis by up to 25 to 30 percent compared to controls. This is important since protein is a basic building block of cell walls, cell structures, and the creation of enzymes vital to body processes. This ability of Milk thistle to promote regeneration is why it is a chosen treatment for chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fatty liver.
Milk thistle for kidney disease, diabetes, and skin health
In the kidneys, silymarin concentrates in the cells to aid in repair and regeneration by increasing protein and nucleic acid synthesis by as much as 25 to 30 percent. It has been tested in animals for its ability to protect kidneys from damage due to drugs. Results of this research were promising for people taking chemotherapy.
The ability of milk thistle to improve liver function and regulate the utilization of insulin leads to improved control for diabetes. A study reported in the August, 2002 Diabetes, Nutrition and Metabolism Journal noted that in patients with diabetes and associated chronic liver disease, plasma levels of glucose, insulin and triglycerides are high, lipid peroxidation is increased, and natural antioxidant reserves are low. Researchers hypothesized that better liver function could result in a better glucose and lipid metabolism.
A randomly selected group of 60 patients with diabetes caused by liver cirrhosis who were being treated with insulin were assigned to receive silymarin 600 mg/day or no treatment with silymarin for a period of 6 months. All the patients were receiving insulin therapy and had elevated endogenous insulin levels indicative of insulin resistance. Other criteria for inclusion in the study were age between 45 and 70, insulin therapy stable for at least 2 years, and liver cirrhosis determined by biopsy less than 4 years previously. Metabolic control, serum lipid levels and liver function was assessed throughout their treatment period.
Treatment with silymarin produced benefits in terms of control of diabetes, including significant reduction in daily and fasting blood glucose confirmed by urine glucose measurement, significant improvement in glycosylated hemoglobin values, and a significant drop in insulin requirement and fasting insulinemia. The status of the patients not treated with silymarin declined during the trial. The outcome in the silymarin recipients was significantly superior compared to the control group.
In the treated patients, the measured values of the end product of lipid peroxidation decreased significantly, from 2.2 umol/dl at baseline to 1.6 umo/dl 6 months later. In the control group, a slight increase in lipid peroxidation was observed over the 6 month period.
Researchers concluded that the clinical benefits of silymarin observed in the study probably involve restoration of the plasma membrane of the liver cells and an increase in insulin receptor sensitivity as a result of reduction in lipid peroxidation of liver cell membranes. Researchers noted the need to administer silymarin for longer periods of time in order to identify the end point of the biochemical amelioration caused by the silymarin treatment. All of the study participants chose to continue with silymarin following the 6 month study.
Along with moistening and soothing mucus membranes, Milk Thistle is effective at softening and moisturizing the skin, and it produces a noticeable glow and radiance to skin quality. Skin problems are quite responsive, particularly acne and eczema. Milk Thistle also aids in the healing of redness and inflammation of the skin.
Supplementing with milk thistle
Silymarin is an extraordinarily useful herb in today's world where the liver faces assault on a daily basis from environmental pollution, toxic medications and drugs, chemicalized food, and infectious organisms. There is evidence that even very small doses of milk thistle are effective as a preventative and may even offer some therapeutic value. At standard dosages, therapeutic results have been demonstrated.
Supplements are available as whole herb or as extract. According to the German Commission E Monographs, "Milk Thistle is an example of a preparation that is required to be in the standardized, concentrated form in order to fully convey the desired, in this case, hepatoprotectant, effects." Others find that you can get an effective dose of silymarin by taking whole milk thistle seed three times a day. They believe that the whole herb offers a more balanced effect.
Milk thistle is safe for use on a long term basis. However, it may not always interact well with prescription drugs, as its detoxifying effect in the liver may render the prescription drug less effective. There is also some note of the ability of milk thistle to reduce the effects of oral contraceptives.
About the authorBarbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.
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