The milk thistle plant (Silybum marianum) is a small, prickly plant that has bright purple flowers and white veins.
It is native to southern Europe, Asia, northern Africa, Australia, and North and South America.
The plant’s active ingredients are part of a group of plant compounds known as silymarin, which are thought to have a number of benefits, including treating gallbladder disorders and improving breast milk production, as well as antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.1,2 However, milk thistle is perhaps best known for its ability to treat a variety of liver disorders.
These valuable healing properties may well be due to the plant’s high levels of silymarin, which are estimated to be anywhere between 65 percent and 80 percent.1 What does the research have to say about the potential benefits for the liver from the milk thistle plant?
A 2013 article in the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases performed a meta-analysis of a group of smaller studies looking at the effectiveness of milk thistle extract in helping to treat chronic hepatitis B.3 A meta-analysis study pools together the results from smaller studies to look for patterns among the results, in the hopes of strengthening the findings by finding commonalities.
In the instance of this particular study, the researchers found that silymarin and standard antiviral agents were similarly effective in helping treat hepatitis B, without undue side effects.3
Alcohol related and non-alcohol related liver cirrhosis
A study of 170 subjects looked at the treatment effects of silymarin for either alcohol related or non-alcohol related cirrhosis of the liver.4 Out of the total number of subjects, 87 cases (46 alcohol related and 41 non-alcohol related) received 140 mg of silymarin, three times a day, for a total of 41 months. The remaining 83 subjects (45 alcohol related and 38 non-alcohol related) all received a placebo treatment.
At the end of the study period, 37 subjects in the placebo group had died, 31 of which were due to liver disease. In comparison, 24 subjects taking silymarin had died, 18 of which were related to liver disease.4
Furthermore, the four-year survival rate was 58 percent for the silymarin-treated subjects and 39 percent for the placebo subjects. In looking closely at each of the subject groups, the researchers believed that the silymarin may have provided a protective effect for those patients with alcohol related liver cirrhosis.4
Lipid profile and fatty liver disease
A 2016 research article using a mouse model had interesting findings regarding lipid profiles and obesity from silymarin.5
A group of mice that were fed a high fat diet to make them obese were then also given silymarin for four weeks as part of their diet.
At the end of the study, the researchers looked at their plasma levels of triglycerides (TG), low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). In all cases, these improved compared to a control group of mice. The researchers think these findings may lead to potential treatments in later human trials.5
In addition to being the largest organ in the body, the liver serves many other vital functions, including controlling blood clotting and making proteins, cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Help your patients keep their liver in top shape by adding milk thistle into their daily regimen of nutritional supplements.
- Abenavoli L, Capasso R, Milic N, Capasso F. Milk thistle in liver diseases: Past, present, future. Phytotherapy Research. 2010 Oct;24(10):1423-1432. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20564545
- Federico A, Dallio M, Loguercio C. Silymarin/silybin and chronic liver disease: A marriage of many years. Molecules. 2017 Jan 24;22(2). pii: E191. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28125040
- Wei F, Liu SK, Liu XY, et al. Meta-analysis: Silymarin and its combination therapy for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases. 2013, 32, 657-669. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23247631
- Ferenci P, Dragosics B, Dittrich H, et al. Randomized controlled trial of silymarin treatment in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. Journal of Hepatology. 1989 Jul; 9(1):105-113. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2671116/
- Ni X, Wang H. Silymarin attenuated hepatic steatosis through regulation of lipid metabolism and oxidative stress in a mouse model of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). American Journal of Translational Research. 2016;8(2):1073-1081. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4846950/