Silymarin is a collective term for the group of plant compounds that form the active ingredient in milk thistle, a prickly plant that been used for hundreds of years by natural healers. A placebo-controlled, randomized double-blind study of 179 participants found that people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease who took a combination of silybin, lecithin, and vitamin E saw significant decreases in their liver size and abdominal fat when compared to diet and exercise alone. Moreover, the researchers noted improvements in insulin sensitivity as well as significant improvements in the levels of liver enzymes in patients who had also been diagnosed with hepatitis C.
When the study began, 85 percent of those who participated were considered either obese or overweight. Interestingly, the group that took silymarin also saw average body mass improvements of 15 percent. This points to the compound’s ability to promote a healthy weight, especially in those who are overweight or obese.
Although researchers already knew that silymarin could prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease from progressing into non-alcoholic steatohepatitis – which can eventually cause liver cancer, liver scarring, liver failure and death – the study also showed that it can act against obesity, hepatitis C, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Silymarin’s anti-cancer properties
Silymarin also boasts some incredible anti-cancer properties that are giving hope to those dealing with liver cancer. It’s a type of cancer that generally has a poor prognosis, but silymarin could provide the breakthrough that patients and doctors need. An animal study that was published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, for example, found that the dietary administration of silymarin stopped liver cancer cells from proliferating and incited the cancer cells to essentially kill themselves. It also reduced the levels of proteins that promote cancer and activated glutathione, which is considered the body’s “master antioxidant.”
Silymarin isn’t just showing promise for liver cancer, however. Other studies have found that it can cause cancer cell death and cell cycle arrest in cervical and ovarian cancer cells, along with cancer of the colon, lung, prostate and breast. In addition, a 2012 animal study found that it could increase cell death in skin cells that sustained damage from ultraviolet radiation and promoted the repair of sun-damaged cells.
It can also help those who are undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that milk thistle can help protect people who are taking common chemotherapy drugs like doxorubicin and cisplatin from sustaining liver damage, while a Columbia University study found that it can reduce liver enzymes and inflammation in children who were undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia – which meant that fewer children had to reduce their dosage of chemotherapy because of liver damage concerns.
Taking milk thistle to get silymarin’s benefits
You might have already seen milk thistle supplements in stores or online. They come in liquid, tablet and capsule form, and you can also steep the leaves and seeds into a tea. However, it’s important that you seek milk thistle extract from a trusted source that has been standardized to 80 percent silymarin or more. You should also keep in mind that the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease study saw the silybin combined with lecithin and vitamin E, which boosts its absorption.
If you’re allergic to ragweed, are pregnant or have diabetes, you shouldn’t take milk thistle. For everyone else, it’s generally safe but may cause mild gastrointestinal symptoms in some people. It’s a good idea to ask an integrative healthcare provider for advice if you have other medical problems.
Milk thistle still needs to be studied more thoroughly with a view to developing treatments for liver problems and cancer, but what we know already is very promising and points to the potential of this beautiful purplish-red plant to serve as a life-changing natural cure.
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