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Milk thistle is a plant that
contains silymarin, a substance that improves liver function. Originally from
Europe, milk thistle now also grows in the United States.
take milk thistle in capsules or as a tincture (combined with alcohol). It has
been widely used in Europe and Germany, where it is a common complementary
treatment for liver problems such as
cirrhosis. In the United States, it is sold as a
People use milk
thistle as a complementary treatment for liver problems, particularly hepatitis
and cirrhosis and inflammation of the bile ducts (cholangitis). Research on
silymarin suggests that it may protect the liver from inflammation. But it does
not have a direct effect on viruses that cause hepatitis, such as the hepatitis
Preliminary research suggests
that silymarin is an
antioxidant, which helps protect the body from
cell-destroying substances called
free radicals. Silymarin also may reduce inflammation
and block the effects of toxins that harm the liver.2
Two studies on milk thistle presented
conflicting results. One study found that milk thistle appeared to help some
people with cirrhosis live longer than they would have otherwise, while another
found no benefit.2
No negative side effects
have been reported from milk thistle.1
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary
supplements in the same way it regulates medicines. A dietary supplement can be
sold with limited or no research on how well it works.
tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking
about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment.
It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only
on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are
pregnant or breast-feeding.
When using dietary supplements, keep
in mind the following:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2009). CAM and hepatitis C: A focus on herbal supplements. Get the facts. Available online: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/hepatitisc/hepatitisc.pdf.
Murray MT, Pizzorno JE Jr (2006). Silybum marianum (milk thistle). In JE Pizzorno Jr, MT Murray,
eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed., vol. 1, pp.
1251–1257. New York: Churchill Livingstone.
Other Works Consulted
Milk thistle (2010). In A DerMarderosian et al., eds., Review of Natural Products. St. Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health.
June 29, 2011
Adam Husney, MD, MD - Family Medicine & Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine
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