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Milk thistle

Protects against liver damage from alcohol, hepatitis and chemical toxins; regenerates already damaged liver tissue

The milk thistle, a tall, spiny plant native to the Mediterranean, got its name from its milky sap — and from a legend that the plant's white-veined leaves resulted from a sprinkling of mother's milk from the Virgin Mary. (The legend accounts for its other name, Mary thistle, and its botanical name, Silybum marianum.)

This tale gave rise to a folk belief that the plant was good for nursing mothers. There is no proof that milk thistle helps breast-feeding. But it has shown dramatic results in healing liver problems.

Milk thistle has been used to treat the liver for some 2,000 years. In the first century CE, the Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that the seedlike fruits of the milk thistle were "excellent for carrying off bile." Later herbalists also esteemed the herb as a liver healer. In the past two decades, research, conducted mainly in Europe, has proven them right.

The active substance in milk thistle seeds is called silymarin — a complex of various compounds that, according to medical researchers, not only protects the liver from damage due to toxins or disease but can actually regenerate liver tissue that's already in trouble.

"Silymarin is a powerful antioxidant," says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a Baltimore physician who practices nutritional and natural medicine and is president of the American Holistic Medical Association. (Antioxidants counter the effects of naturally occurring toxins called free radicals.) "In animal studies, it has prevented liver damage, and in human studies, it has sped recovery from hepatitis," says Dr. Gaby.

Studies in Hungary, Germany and elsewhere demonstrate that silymarin holds promise for treating various liver disorders, including damage from exposure to chemical toxins and cirrhosis caused by alcohol abuse.

Putting the herb to work

Who should reap the benefits of milk thistle, and how? First, don't fool around with liver problems. If you have hepatitis, cirrhosis or any other liver-related condition, see your doctor.

There have never been any reports of problems associated with milk thistle consumption, and some European physicians prescribe a standardized extract for liver disease. In the United States, this product, sometimes marketed under the name Thisilyn, is available as a food supplement.

A few American doctors also use milk thistle. Dr. Gaby, for example, recommends silymarin extract to some patients with chronic liver disease. He says he gets good results. "One man had elevated liver enzymes for six years-a sign of liver damage, in this case of unknown origin. Various liver specialists offered no help," he says. "But one month after he began taking silymarin regularly, the enzymes came down to normal levels and stayed there."

Traditionally, almost every part of the milk thistle has been used for food — even the leaves, with the spines removed. But the therapeutic substances in milk thistle are not water-soluble, so a tea would be ineffective, points out Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. And since silymarin is poorly absorbed by the human digestive system, he adds, capsules of concentrate are the only source of the compound that's effective.

If you want to take milk thistle products, it might be a good idea to discuss it with your doctor.

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