Milk Thistle for Detox and Liver Support
When I studied medicine in Europe, I noticed that it was standard hospital policy to have Milk Thistle extract in the gastroenterology department. It was used as treatment for patients with liver disease, especially liver failure in alcoholic patients. Why this medication is not used for the same purpose in North America is a mystery beyond comprehension. There are so few things that can be used to support the liver, especially when this organ is in crisis, that every single herb with enough evidence should be utilized for this purpose to help patients improve their quality of life.
The liver is the primary organ (along with the kidneys and the intestines) involved in detoxifying toxic compounds, both acquired from the environment and the ones which are a by product of our metabolism. Without a functional liver life would be impossible. Most instances of liver failure are caused by what is called liver cirrhosis (which is basically the liver becoming hardened due to excessive production of connective tissue between liver cells), and most cases of liver cirrhosis are due to excessive alcohol consumption over a prolonged period of time. People vary greatly as to the extant that their liver is resistant to such insults, but as a general rule consuming the equivalent of one bottle of wine per day for 20 years will lead to cirrhosis in most individuals. Apparently this process once began is irreversible. However some Naturopaths dispute this. Needless to say this process can be substantially slowed town by proper supplementation and thus such supplementation can extend the life, as well as improve the quality of life of the individual substantially. Milk thistle, and especially its active compound called Silymarin can achieve this. Furthermore, this compound can protect the liver to help prevent the development of liver disease as well as help the liver in performing optimally especially with it’s detoxifying role.
So what is Silymarin and how does it help the liver in detox? To begin with Silymarin is general term depicting 7 different compounds called Flavonolignans. These Flavonolignans are : Silybinin A and Silybinin B (which comprise about 60-70% of Silymarin); Isosilibin A and Isosilibin B (which comprise about 5% of Silymarin); Silychristine and Isosilychristine (comprising about 20% of Silymarin); Silydianin (comprising about 10% of Sylymarin) and Taxifolin (which is usually at almost undetectable levels).
As far as supporting the liver as well as it’s other health benefiting effects here is how these molecules play their roles. First, Milk Thistle has been shown to enhance protein synthesis (by increasing polymerase 1 enzyme activity) as well as DNA synthesis. This is extremely important for liver regeneration after toxic insults. The liver has a great capacity to regenerate itself. However, regular toxic insults can decrease this capability. Milk thistle supports this regenerative process by the mechanism outlined above.
Another important mechanism is the inhibition of an enzyme called Xanthine Oxidase. This enzyme converts toxic hypoxanthine to uric acid. This process is involved in the breakdown of purines (molecules which are part of DNA) during DNA turnover. This is an important reaction but not a perfect one. In the process free oxygen radicals are formed that are damaging to the liver and to other organs of the body. Furthermore excessive action of this enzyme produces excessive uric acid which can be damaging to the liver, the kidney as well as cause the well known (and very painful) condition called Gout. One of the standard treatments for Gout is Allopurinol. Milk thistle has been shown to be just as effective without the side effects of Allopurinol, which sometimes can be very serious.
Another very interesting aspect of Milk thistle is that traditionally it was also used for Amanita phalloides mushroom poisoning. This type of poisoning was quite common in Europe (before the discovery of magic mushrooms with much less liver toxicity). Amanita phalloides also has hallucinogenic substances but it is much more liver toxic than the other species of mushroom taken for this purpose. Of course sometimes, ingestion of A.phalloides occurs because of an accident by someone now well versed in forest mushrooms; however this is difficult to imagine as A. phalloides is so distinctive from any other mushroom species (the only one that has a bright red cap with white spots). Needless to say the toxic liver effect of this mushroom is very similar to the effect excessive alcohol has (when taken over a long time period). The major difference is that the toxicity of the mushroom is much more severe over a much shorter period of time. My point here is that if Milk Thistle is considered effective for poisoning caused by such a toxic mushroom species, it most likely (and this has been proven in studies) is also effective for less dramatic liver insults such as from alcohol or everyday pollutants in our environment.
Stay healthy my friends and take advantage of this wonderful traditional medicine of European origins.