It is no secret that the active compounds found in herbs serve as the starting point of many pharmaceutical studies meant to deliver the next effective medication. The down side to taking the artificial version of the active herbal compound is a long and distinguished list of side effects. While the herbs themselves can also have side effects, it is relatively rare that they do and when they do, they are much less dramatic than their pharmaceutical counterparts. This may be because herbs also contain other compounds which moderate its most powerful ones and that the herbs are not taken in large enough quantities to cause such side effects. Therefore medicinal herbs, especially those which have been proven to be safe, are an easy way to treat certain conditions which are sub-clinical and are not life threatening. They also warrant serious studies to see whether they can be used even in place of the usually toxic pharmaceutical medications. Milk thistle is one such herb.
Milk thistle or Silybum marianum is also known as wild artichoke. Its bitter taste puts milk thistle in the “Bitters” category making it a digestive tonic. It was used as far back as in the first century, recommended for digestive health by naturalists such as Pliny the Elder. Later, in the 17th century, physicians also recommended it for liver, spleen, and kidney conditions. It is rich in many flavonoids and phytonutrients supportive of the immune system, but silymarin is its most active compound. It is extracted from its seeds and is not water soluble, generally administered via capsules or tincture. While this herb has been used from everything from digestive issues to treating cancer, this plant is mostly used for liver conditions. (Eliaz, 2014)
Milk thistle has been shown to protect the liver from alcohol damage and even reverse existing conditions. Studies have shown that silymarin neutralizes free radicals reducing cellular damage. (Gormley, 1997) It’s also been used to treat jaundice, hepatitis, and cirrhosis. There is some evidence showing that milk thistle can help restore liver damage from early stages of alcohol abuse, normalizes liver enzymes and bilirubin levels, and that long term use can increase survival rate of cirrhosis patients. It is used in Europe to treat mushroom poisoning and evidence also suggests that it can diminish liver damage due to industrial toxins. (Eliaz, 2014)
In addition to its positive effects on the liver, milk thistle has also been shown to protect from cancer. One study showed a reduction in life span of cervical cancer cells. In animal studies it reduced kidney and liver toxicity due to chemotherapy while keeping the effectiveness of the chemo. Of course, these studies still need more confirmation. (Eliaz, 2014) One particular study of mice suffering from non-melanoma skin cancer proved milk thistle to be very beneficial. It was shown to reduce the enzymatic activity of ornithine decarboxylase, a promoter of skin tumors. In cases of ultraviolet B radiation complete carcinogenesis, silymarin reduced tumor incidence from 100% to 25%, reduced tumor replication by 92 percent, and reduced tumor size by 97%. (Gormley, 1997) Since mice and humans share 99% of DNA material, human trials may be a good idea. (cbsnews.com)
Furthermore, milk thistle has also been shown to lower blood sugar, manage insulin resistance, lower LDL cholesterol in type 2 diabetics. In animal studies, silymarin reduced LDL cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol, comparable to non-statin drugs in the case of LDL and unmatched in the case of HDL. Furthermore, animal studies show that milk thistle may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease by lessening the formation of neurotoxic proteins. Modern studies also show that milk thistle makes bile more soluble deterring the formation of gallstones. (Eliaz, 2014)
It is not known exactly how milk thistle works, but the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, suggests that silymarin promotes the regeneration of liver cells, fights oxidation, and inhibits inflammation. (Rambaldi, 2005) Milk thistle is generally a safe herb. Side effects may include digestive disturbances and allergic reactions for people with a ragweed allergy. Use should be discontinued immediately if these symptoms occur. Since milk thistle acts on the liver, it may alter the efficacy of certain drugs that are highly metabolized by the liver. These drugs may include antipsychotics, general anesthesia, birth control or other hormonal drugs, allergic medications, anti-anxiety drugs, and blood thinners. Milk thistle can also have an estrogenic effect on the body and can be a risk for people with estrogenic cancers. But, for those not at this risk, its estrogenic activity can be beneficial for those with low bone density. (Eliaz, 2014)
Milk thistle had not been officially proven to lower mortality rates in alcoholics or patients of hepatitis B or C. There were studies that shown reduced liver-related mortality but they were not reproduced in high quality clinical studies. But it was found safe, without serious side effects, and participants said that they felt better. The feel-good effect, however, was comparable to placebo effects. One particular research found that the use of milk thistle or its extracts were not helpful in curing liver cirrhosis or hepatitis. (Rambaldi, 2005)
Doctors who believe in the benefits of milk thistle suggest that the trials failed because the three daily servings of 140 mg used in the trial were too low a dosage. They feel the dosages should be at least doubled, a safe dosage since silymarin has been shown to be safe. Since there is no cure for viral hepatitis other than rest and diet, anything that could help is worth studying. Final assessments of clinical trials conclude that milk thistle could be helpful in the treatment of alcoholic and hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases, but that large scale, randomized trials versus placebo are needed. (Rambaldi, 2005)
Proving scientifically that a substance is a cure of a condition is difficult to do. It is the mirror image to proving causality in the other direction, that a substance is carcinogenic. However, even though it may be unofficial, milk thistle has a very long history of use with what users consider positive effects. Two thousand years of use must be a result of something other than placebo effect or something that does nothing. Not having further studies to find the particulars of using this plant seems almost irresponsible when we have nothing better than toxic medications.
Collins, D. www.cbsnews.com/news/of-mice-and-men. (2002)
Eliaz, I. Got Milk Thistle? Natural Solutions. (2014) Retrieved on 9/17/14 from
www.evergladeslibrary.com. Document URL:
Gormley, J. Milk thistle’s not ‘just’ for the liver any more. Better Nutrition. (1997) Retrieved
on 9/16/14 from www.evergladeslibrary.com. Document URL:
Rambaldi, A. Liver Disease; Milk Thistle does not reduce deaths from liver disease.
Clinical Trials Weeks. (2005) Retrieved on 9/17/2014 from www.evergladeslibrary.com Document Url: