Milk thistle shows promise in treating liver cancer

Milk thistle has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. Historically, the prickly, purple plant has been used to promote liver health and is highly regarded for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. New studies have shown that the protective benefits of milk thistle are far greater than conventional scientists could have ever imagined. While modern medicine tends to eschew the cures of yore, researchers from the University of California, Irvine have shown that milk thistle is extremely effective against liver cancer.

Milk thistle contains an array of plant nutrients, including two key bioactive compounds known as silymarin and silibinin. Silymarin is known for a host of health benefits, but researchers are beginning to look at silibinin for its anti-cancer effects. And as the team from UC Irvine has discovered, this plant nutrient may be especially effective against liver cancer.

Fighting liver cancer with milk thistle

Hailing from UC Irvine Medical Center, a research team led by Dr. Ke-Qin Hu first highlighted the potential for milk thistle extract to fight liver cancer in a study that was published in 2007.

The team looked at silibinin’s effects on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cell growth, and found that the extract had multiple anti-cancer effects on the cancer cells. These effects included inhibiting the cell cycle of cancer cells, decreasing the proliferation of cancer cells, and increasing the rate of apoptosis (cell death).

In their conclusion, the researchers stated,”Our results defined silibinin’s in vitro anti-HCC effects and possible mechanisms, and provided a rationale to further test silibinin for HCC chemoprevention.”

Other benefits of milk thistle

The benefits of milk thistle don’t end with fighting liver cancer — in fact, that’s really just the beginning. Even the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes that studies have shown milk thistle to be effective at promoting liver health in a variety of ways. Past research funded by the National Institutes of Health confirmed that supplementing with milk thistle reduced symptoms and improved quality of life in patients with Hepatitis C.

The effects of milk thistle extend beyond the liver. As Dr. David Jockers reports, “Milk thistle is a demulcent that improves the health of the body’s mucous membranes. This reduces inflammation within the skin cells, sinus and respiratory tract and kidney and bladder wall lining.” Dr. Jockers also states that milk thistle helps to protect the kidneys from damage, among other benefits.

Silymarin, another beneficial compound found in milk thistle, is said to be 10 times as potent as vitamin E in terms of its antioxidant activity — no wonder it’s so protective. Like other herbal remedies, milk thistle offers a host of benefits that can be observed across the body.

As the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) reports, studies have also shown that milk thistle may help reduce blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

NCCIH also states that the herb is generally well-tolerated in suggested doses, though it can cause some gastrointestinal distress in some people. While it is generally regarded as safe, milk thistle is a potential allergen. NCCIH states that people with allergies to plants in the same family (such as ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold, and daisy) are more likely to be at risk of having a reaction to milk thistle. You should always speak with your naturopath or other holistic care provider before beginning a new supplement.

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