100 Point Health: Milk Thistle for Liver Health

The milk thistle plant, and particularly the seeded portion, has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years. Milk thistle (silybum marianum) is a plant related to the sunflower family. Originally native to a small area in the Mediterranean region, it has been transplanted and cultivated around the world. The edible thistles of the plant were named silybum by the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides, who served in the Roman army about 2,000 years ago. 

Hippocrates (460-370 BC) might well have been referring to milk thistle when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The ancient Greeks recognized milk thistle as a liver tonic. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) lauded its bile-cleansing properties. Abundant references from the Middle Ages recognize its liver cleansing properties. While European medical literature is abundant with references to milk thistle, American medicinal literature was silent on the subject until the end of the 19th century. It has only been in the last 40-50 years that focused, scientific study has been directed toward the protective effects of milk thistle on the liver, kidney and spleen.

Milk thistle’s active ingredient is the flavonoid silymarin, which is a complex of compounds known as flavonolignans.  This compound purportedly optimizes liver function and helps with liver detoxification and cleansing. This is because milk thistle has anti-fibrotic properties and works by binding to the outside of the liver cells, thereby inhibiting the entry of additional toxins. It neutralizes toxins already present in the liver and purportedly aids in the regeneration of damaged liver cells (such as with cirrhosis). Affected toxins include not only alcohol in wine, but also a myriad of others, such as acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), carbon tetrachloride, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), antidepressants, and other psychotropic medications and cholesterol-lowering medications—all of which can damage the liver. Additionally, double-blind studies of patients with alcoholic, psychopharmaceutical or industrially-induced chemical liver disease, who were administered silymarin, exhibited results that included dramatic improvement in the three liver enzymes GOT (glutamic-oxalacetic transaminase), GPT (glutamic-pyruvic transaminase) and GGT (gamma-glutamyl-transpeptidase).

Milk thistle also plays a role in increasing glutathione levels, thus supporting increased antioxidant protection. Studies indicate it may also increase the survival rate for people with chronic hepatitis, given its inflammation-reducing properties. Research also indicates that milk thistle decreases blood sugar levels. This means it can improve “control of blood sugar in people with diabetes with and without liver disease.” Milk thistle also seems to be effective in some people with seasonal allergies and heartburn.

According to the non-profit organization American Botanical Council, milk thistle also seems to provide a variety of anti-cancer benefits related to cancers of the prostate, skin, tongue, bladder, breast and cervix. Also, it appears to promote kidney health in much the same ways as with liver health, aids heart health by helping to increase HDL levels and reduce blood pressure, and seems to have certain neuroprotective attributes dealing with Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

Milk thistle can be purchased in supplement form, and the milk thistle seeds themselves can be purchased and used in soups and salads. Silymarin can also be found in small quantities in artichokes, turmeric and cilantro. If used as a supplement, while dosage varies from person to person, a common dosage seems to be around 400 milligrams daily. There appears to be few, if any, side effects reported by the use of milk thistle. As with any other commentary in this column, please consult your health care consultant prior to taking any supplements.

DISCLAIMER: This article represents the views of the author and is not intended to constitute medical advice. The author’s views are not necessarily the views of The Wine Advocate.

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