PORTLAND, OREGON. Extracts from milk thistle (Silybum marianum) have been used
in herbal medicine for 2000 years. Pliney The Elder (AD 23-79) reported that a
mixture of the plant's juice and honey was excellent for "carrying off bile".
Since then many scientists have lauded milk thistle's ability to treat liver
disease. Since 1969 milk thistle extracts have become very popular and now
account for sales of $160 million a year in Germany alone. Researchers at the
Oregon Health Sciences University recently released a major report reviewing the
scientific papers dealing with silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle
extracts. A standard silymarin extract contains 70 per cent silymarin which in
itself is a mixture of flavonolignans, silydianin, silychristine, and silybin.
Silybin is believed to be the most biologically active component and is rapidly
absorbed into the blood stream and bile after an oral dose. Silybin acts as an
antioxidant, decreases the activity of tumor promotors, and acts as a mild
chelator of iron. Studies have shown that silymarin is beneficial in the
treatment of acute viral hepatitis and some toxin and drug-induced forms of
hepatitis. There are also reports that silymarin is effective in the treatment
of alcoholic liver disease and chronic hepatitis. Therapeutic dosages range
from 140 mg twice a day to 560 mg/day for periods from six months to six years.
No adverse side effects of silymarin have been documented and the researchers
conclude that well-designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies should be
carried out to further investigate silymarin's benefits in the treatment of a
variety of diseases.