Milk Thistle

Silybum marianum is a stout annual or biannual plant, found in dry rocky soils in western and southern Europe and certain parts of the US. It is known by many other thistle names (Mary-, Marian-, Lady’s-, Holy thistle) and as the wild artichoke. It has been used for thousands of years, and it was Dioscorides who gave the plant the name Silybum some 2000 years ago, and commented that the thorny fruit was eaten with olive oil and salt, while the juice extracted from the root mixed with honey was an emetic. The main active ingredients are the flavonolignans silibin, silidianin and silichristin, known and used collectively as silymarin. More recently a new form of silymarin appeared bound to phosphatidylcholine, the key constituent of cellular membranes throughout the body. The bound silymarin appears to be better absorbed and to produce better clinical results.

  • Anti-inflammatory. Milk thistle extract provides an anti-inflammatory effect through apparently three different mechanisms. The inhibition of leukotrienes by suppressing the decomposition of cell membrane lipids; the boosting of antioxidant enzyme systems; and the elimination of toxins known to trigger inflammatory reactions.
  • Antioxidant. Silymarin has the capacity to raise glutathione (GSH) in the liver by over 35 percent, used by the body to make glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme that is rated as one of the best free radical fighters. Equally, it seems to also raise in cell cultures, another important antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. The enzyme combination could make silymarin a very valuable contribution to the modern fight against chronic degenerative diseases.
  • Anti-psoriasis. The mechanism responsible for the abnormal skin cell replication in psoriasis, is linked to the levels of two cellular control agents that govern maturation and multiplication of cells, known as cAMP and cGMP. In psoriasis, cGMP levels are high comparatively to cAMP. Silymarin’s effect is to lower cGMP and boost cAMP levels. Psoriasis has also been shown to be associated with high levels of circulating endotoxins, like these found in the cell walls of gut bacteria. Silymarin’s detoxifying properties are well suited for the task. Still another well known factor in psoriasis is the production of leukotrienes. But silymarin blocks the formation of leukotrienes by inhibiting the enzyme lipoxygenase, and suppressing the decomposition of the lipids in cell membranes.
  • Liver detoxifier and restorer. Silymarin is perhaps best known as the most potent protector of the liver and this has been the principal use of milk thistle at least since the Middle Ages. We have already seen that Silymarin prevents free radical damage by acting as a powerful antioxidant, more than ten times more potent than vitamin E, through the enzymes glutathione peroxidase and superoxide dismutase. But silymarin can also protect the liver from leukotrienes, from toxins that produce or act like free radicals, and from chemicals highly toxic to the liver, as for example carbon tetrachloride, ethanol, galactosamine, and praseodymium nitrate. But perhaps the most impressive protective effect of silymarin is against the severe poisoning of Amanita phalloides, the toadstool mushroom. The mushroom peptides amanitin and phalloidin are the most powerful liver-damaging substances known. Silymarin administered before, or 10 minutes after, the amanita toxins completely counteracted the toxic effects. But even if given within 24 hours, silymarin prevented death and greatly reduced liver damage. But there are even more benefits from this wonder herb. Some milk thistle components appear to stimulate the synthesis of proteins, resulting in the production of new liver cells to replace the damaged ones. Of great interest is the fact that silymarin does not have this effect on malignant liver tissue. It is clear that the herb exerts both a protective and restorative effect on the liver, and this without any known side effects. The herb extract has given impressive results in clinical trials of metabolic liver disorders, fatty degeneration of the liver, acute and chronic viral hepatitis, alcohol-related liver damage, and cirrhosis survival rates.