Milk thistle herb enjoys quite a reputation for liver protection.
Several years ago, I found it included in my Vitamin Advisor due to how often I drink wine.
Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may reduce the chances of developing heart disease and dementia including Alzheimer’s. But, women are sensitive to alcohol’s effects, drinking more than one glass of wine a day increases the risk of breast cancer and liver disease.
Andrew Weil, MD, explains:
I recommend this tonic [milk thistle] for all heavy users of alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs that are hard on the liver, including cancer patients that are undergoing therapy.Note that medical research demonstrates that milk thistle influences the cytochrome P450 system, an enzymatic system of the liver and gut that detoxifies and inactivates harmful substances in the body.
Weil also notes that conventional medicine has nothing comparable to offer for liver problems.
Long used in Europe, milk thistle herb is approved in The German Commission E Monographs as a treatment for inflammatory liver conditions such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, and fatty infiltration caused by alcohol and other toxins. This expert commission, formed by the German government, evaluates the safety and efficacy herbs.
Milk Thistle Herb
Milk thistle (scientific name, Silybum marianum) is a member of the daisy plant family. It earns the “milk” portion of its name from its leaves that contain splashes of white and a milky sap. It’s robust spiny nature make it a “thistle.” It produces a flower head that is reddish-purple.
Silymarin, an extract of the milk thistle seed, provides most of its beneficial effects. As a remedy, it comes in capsules, extracts, powders and tinctures.
What Do Studies Say?
A review of studies by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and ConsumerLab.com suggests that milk thistle herb has many benefits:
- Protects and promotes growth of liver cells
- Fights oxidative stress (a chemical process that damages cells)
- Inhibits inflammation
- Decreases blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c, and LDL cholesterol levels when used with conventional therapy for people with type 2 diabetes
- Reduces insulin resistance in people with both diabetes and alcoholic cirrhosis
- May protect the liver agains toxins, including acetaminophen (tylenol) and phenytoin (dilantin)
- May reduce liver toxicity due to chemotherapy
These sources report that most of these studies were not “rigorously designed” and that more high-quality studies are needed. A number of new studies are now underway by following agencies:
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) – Hepatitis C Antiviral Long-Term Treatment Against Cirrhosis (HALT)
- NCCAM – milk thistle for liver disease
- The National Cancer Institute – silymarin for leukemia patients who experience chemotherapy related liver damage
Safety and Special Precautions
Nontoxic and inexpensive, milk thistle herb is well tolerated in recommended doses, although a few people have reported gastrointestinal upset. Allergic reactions are possible, which tend to be more common in those allergic to plants in the same family (daisy, ragweed, marigold, chrysanthemum).
Use with caution If you have diabetes or hypoglycemia as it may lower blood sugar levels.
“Although drug interactions have not been reported, milk thistle might reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives and it might inhibit cytochrome P450 2C9, increasing the levels of certain drugs metabolized by it such as amitriptyline, diazepam, verapamil, and warfarin,” reports ConsumerLab.com.
The cleansing effect of milk thistle may speedup the removal of some drugs when taken such as Coumadin, antibiotics, anti-fungals, and AIDS treatment drugs.
So that he or she can be a good partner in your care, let your health care provider know if you are taking milk thistle.
The common dosage of milk thistle is 200 mg 2 to 3 times a day as a standardized extract of 70% to 80% silymarin. You can find it online or in most health food stores. Be sure to buy standardized extracts and follow the suggested dosage on the label.
Milk Thistle has a good reputation for protecting and detoxifying the liver, although some experts believe more study is needed. Although safe, it’s detoxifying effects may affect certain medications, so let your health care provider know you are taking it.
Sources and Resources
Blumenthal, M., et. al., eds. The Complete German Commission E Monographs (Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medical Communications, 1998).
ConsumerLab.com, “Product Review: Milk Thistle Supplements” at https://www.consumerlab.com/reviews/Milk_Thistle_Supplements/milkthistle.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), “Milk Thistle” at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/ataglance.htm.
Salisbury University, “A Nurses Guide to Herbal Remedies” at http://www.salisbury.edu/nursing/herbalremedies/milk_thistle.htm.
Weil, Andrew, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health: A Proven Program for Taking Full Advantage of Your Body’s Natural Healing Power (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).