Milk thistles are thistles of the genus Silybum Adans., flowering plants of the daisy family (Asteraceae). They are native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The name "milk thistle" derives from two features of the leaves: they are mottled with splashes of white and they contain a milky sap. However, it is the seeds of milk thistle that herbalists have used for 2000 years to treat chronic liver disease and protect the liver against toxins.
For many centuries extracts of milk thistle have been recognized as "liver tonics." Milk thistle has been reported to have protective effects on the liver and to greatly improve its function. It is typically used to treat liver cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation), toxin-induced liver damage (including the prevention of severe liver damage from Amanita phalloides (death cap) mushroom poisoning), and gallbladder disorders.
A compound called silmarin is responsible for the effect that milk thistle has on the liver. To understand why it’s so important, it may help to understand how the liver works. The liver is one of the most important organs in the body. Its job is to clean the toxins from your body. And when it’s working properly, it keeps toxins from building up in the bloodstream. When your liver isn’t working, you don’t have much time left to live before something must be done.
Many things can affect the way the liver functions. Sometimes people have liver problems due to viral infections such as hepatitis. For others, heavy use of alcohol and other drugs can cause liver ailments. It’s also possible to have liver damage because of exposure to pollutants and environmental toxins that the liver must attack.
Research suggests that milk thistle extracts both prevent and repair damage to the liver from toxic chemicals and medications. Workers who had been exposed to vapors from toxic chemicals (toluene and/or xylene) for 5-20 years were given either a standardized milk thistle extract (80% silymarin) or placebo for 30 days. The workers taking the milk thistle extract showed significant improvement in liver function tests (ALT and AST) and platelet counts vs. the placebo group.
The efficacy of silymarin in preventing drug-induced liver damage in patients taking psychotropic drugs long-term has been investigated . This class of drugs is known to cause liver damage from oxidation of lipids. Patients taking silymarin in the study had less hepatic damage from the oxidation of lipids than patients taking the placebo.
In a 2009 study published in the journal Cancer, milk thistle showed promise in reducing the liver damaging effects of chemotherapy in a study of 50 children.
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