As a plant, milk thistle contains many different compounds. Of these compounds, it appears that silymarin (which is actually a mixture of four different flavonolignans) is the medicinally active component of milk thistle. Silymarin has many different effects in the body.
Silymarin may work for liver disease in several ways. It helps liver cells to regenerate and changes the outer membrane of liver cells to decrease the penetration of toxins. Silymarin may also decrease inflammation and fibrosis, and may also affect the immune system. It may also help prevent the liver from metabolizing certain substances into toxic byproducts.
Silymarin also acts as an antioxidant, which may explain how milk thistle works for several different conditions, including diabetes. Because oxidative stress may damage the pancreas in people with diabetes, compounds with antioxidant activity may preserve the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin.
Certain parts of the milk thistle plant seem to have estrogenic effects, which might explain how it works for prostate cancer and various other conditions.
Milk Thistle Use in Children
It is not clear if milk thistle supplements are safe for use in children. Do not give your child milk thistle supplements without the approval of your child's healthcare provider. Children can be more sensitive to the toxicities and side effects of medications and supplements.
Written by/reviewed by: Kristi Monson, PharmD;Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last reviewed by: KristiMonson, PharmD;
List of references (click here):
Jellin JM, editor. Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database Web site. Available at: http://naturaldatabase.com/. Accessed August 11, 2008.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Milk thistle: effects on liver disease and cirrhosis and clinical adverse effects. Summary, evidence report/technology assessment: Number 21 (September 2000). AHRQ Web site. Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/milktsum.htm. Accessed August 11, 2008.
National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Herbs at a glance: milk thistle (March 2008). NCCAM Web site. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/. Accessed August 11, 2008.
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