HERBS FOR LIVER HEALTH
1. MILK THISTLE*
The health of the entire body is absolutely dependant upon the health of the liver. The liver is responsible for a wide variety of essential functions within the body, as described in detail in my May 2014 newsletter The Liver and Liver Disease, which is recommended to be read is association with this newsletter.
How does the liver become unhealthy?
The simple answer to this question is ..... modern life style. Alcohol, environmental pollutants, junk food, chemical food additives, pesticides, cosmetics and other chemicals such as sun-screens applied to the skin, household products, stress and pharmaceuticals can all kill liver cells. Then there are the various viral infections (hepatitis A-E).
My May 2014 newsletter The Liver and Liver Disease sets out the orthodox approach to the management of liver disease.
For a healthy liver, a healthy life-style is essential. This must include: a dominantly alkaline diet (see my September 2005 newsletter Acid/ Alkaline Balance - The Ideal diet), containing foods that are nutrient-rich (see my March 2009 newsletter Foods for Health), correct weight (BMI < 25), physical activity (see my April 2013 newsletter Exercise - The Secret to Better Health) and, as far as is possible and practical, avoidance of environmental pollutants of all kinds, including EMR.
There are a number of herbs that are beneficial for a healthy liver, both to protect against disease of the liver and to treat diseases of the liver if present. These herbs will be the subjects of a series of newsletters entitled Herbs for Liver Health, of which this one, featuring Milk Thistle, is the first.
Milk thistle, Silybum marianum, has been used for over 2,000 years as a herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, particularly liver disease. The seeds were used to treat chronic liver disease and to protect against liver toxins.
It has several other names: Silymarin, Marian Thistle, Mediterranean Thistle, Mary Thistle and Holy Thistle. It is a flowering plant of the daisy family, native to Europe. The name ‘milk thistle’ derives from two features of the leaves: they are mottled with splashes of white and they contain milky sap. The flowers are red-purple and the small, hard-skinned fruit is brown, spotted and shiny. Traditional milk thistle extract is made from the seeds, which contain approximately 4-6% silymarin. The extract consists of about 65-80% silymarin and 20-35% fatty acids, including linoleic acid.
Active Ingredient of Milk Thistle
The active ingredient in milk thistle, the one that protects and is beneficial to the liver, is silymarin. This is not a single substance, but a group of flavonoids, which is essentially a complex mixture of polyphenolic molecules (silibinin A and B, silidianin, and silicristin being the four most common of some seven closely related molecules) found in the seeds.
Flavonoids (flavus means yellow, their colour in nature) are widely distributed in plants, fulfilling many functions. They are sometimes referred to as vitamin P. They are polyhydroxy polyphenol compounds. They are most commonly known for their antioxidant activity, protecting against free radical damage.
Silymarin not only has antioxidant properties, but also has anti-inflammatory properties and it may help the liver repair itself by stimulating the growth of new cells, where cells have been damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances. It also keeps new liver cells from being damaged by these same toxins.
Therapeutic Applications of Milk Thistle
Milk thistle can be used as a ‘liver tonic’, ie for the general well-being of the liver, and to protect it against toxins etc.
It is recommended as a treatment for alcoholic liver disease such as alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis.
Milk thistle is widely used in the treatment of viral hepatitis (particularly hepatitis C).
It can afford some protection of the liver against toxicity from alcohol and other drugs. Some recommend that it should be administered to all patients who are given medications known to cause liver problems.
One of the most commonly taken medications that is toxic to the liver is acetaminophen or paracetamol, marketed under a large number of different trade names, most commonly Panadol (Australia, New Zealand and UK) and Tylenol (USA). It is an 'over-the-counter' mild analgesic. The maximum recommended dose for an average healthy adult is 4,000 mg (4g) within 24 hours. Even at this dose, there is some hepatotoxicity (poisoning of the liver). In the presence of 2 standard alcoholic drinks, the dose within 24 hours should be no more than 2,000 mg (2g) ... this is the combination of two hepatotoxic substances. If 50 x 500mg (25g) Panadol tablets, taken as an overdose, kills you due to liver failure, what does 2x 500 mg 3-4 times a day do to your liver? It is said that more than 12g in 24 hours is potentially fatal.
There are many other pharmaceuticals that are hepatotoxic, for example the statin drugs, so widely used to treat raised blood cholesterol. There are non-pharmaceuticals that can cause liver damage, eg deadly mushrooms.
There are other chemicals that are toxic to the liver. Milk thistle would have a place in treatment.
Dosage of Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is available as capsules and tablets. Most contain "milk thistle seed extract ... 80% silymarin", generally 250 mg size. The average adult dose is two capsules/tablets per day (400 mg silymarin) (www.iherb.com)
Milk thistle is generally regarded as safe. Side effects, if any, are usually mild, and may involve stomach upset and diarrhoea. Rarely, there is headache.
*Copyright 2014: The Huntly Centre.
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