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Eat, Drink, and Take Milk Thistle

With rum-laden eggnog and champagne flowing freely, the holidays can be particularly hard on the liver. Fortunately for drinkers, help is at hand with an herb called milk thistle.

Dr. Varro Tyler, professor emeritus at Purdue University, is one of many herbal experts who recommend milk thistle. Although it can't stop a hangover, he says it might be wise to take the herb before or after an evening of overindulgence to help avoid liver damage. Likewise, Mark Blumenthal, U.S. editor of the Complete German Commission E Monographs, an authoritative source of information on herbal medicines from Germany, carries along a bottle of milk thistle capsules to complement his busy conference schedule, with its inevitable attendant cocktail receptions.

An ancient remedy
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) has been used to treat liver ailments, gallstones, and other maladies for some 2,000 years. The herb grows as a weed in many parts of the world, its purple flowers and prickly, milk-veined leaves a common sight along the East and West coasts. The German Commission E lists milk thistle as an approved herb for "toxic liver damage, inflammatory liver disease, and cirrhosis," with no side effects other than an occasional mild laxative action.

The herb's most significant benefits relate to its liver-strengthening effects. The all-important liver, our second largest organ after the skin, must process foods and fats. While doing so, it detoxifies alcohol, drugs, and other toxins.

The seedlike fruits of milk thistle contain three liver-protecting compounds: silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin--collectively known as silymarin, or milk thistle extract. Silymarin strengthens liver cells, preventing toxins from harming the liver. It also boosts levels of glutathione, a detoxifying antioxidant. Moreover, silymarin is itself a powerful antioxidant that protects the liver. Although there are better-known antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, and E and the mineral selenium, milk thistle is 10 times more potent in the liver.

A number of studies have confirmed the potential benefits of milk thistle in protecting against liver disease, including alcoholic cirrhosis. Some people with AIDS currently take milk thistle to counter the liver-damaging effects of the potent protease inhibitor drugs. And the herb has even been used in an injectable form in emergency rooms, the sole known antidote to fatal 'death cap' (Amanita) mushroom poisoning.

Preliminary animal studies also indicate potential benefits in using the herb for the treatment of psoriasis and, possibly, some types of skin cancer.

Moderation is key
But remember, the consequences of excessive drinking are serious. Dr. James Robbers, Dr. Tyler's coauthor on many books and a professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at Purdue as well, believes that milk thistle is best reserved as long-term therapy for heavy drinkers with liver damage, rather than as a short-term prophylactic for binge drinkers. The key to a healthy holiday season is moderation.

Suggested Dose
Take 250 mg of standardized extract three times a day between meals. Look for products that contain 70 to 80% silymarin, the active ingredient.

For Additional Information
See our library entry on milk thistle.

Date Published: 02/07/2001
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