Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a herb native to the Mediterranean that has a long history of use in traditional herbal medicine dating back as far as 2000 years ago. It gets its name from the fact that when the leaves are crushed they ooze a white milky fluid. The herb has been used to treat a variety of conditions but its main use has always been in disorders of the liver.
In recent decades scientific interest in milk thistle has increased resulting in numerous studies of the plant and its potential use as a therapeutic agent in liver diseases. Scientists have learned that the most biologically active compounds in milk thistle are a group of flavonoids, silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin, collectively called silymarin.
Silymarin has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and helps to protect liver cells from damage that would normally result from toxins such as alcohol. Some research suggests it helps to promote the regeneration of liver cells when the liver sustains damage from such toxins.
Silymarin has been shown in a number of studies to protect liver cells against both acetaminophen (paracetamol) overdose and deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning. It may also be helpful in chronic liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Finally, some initial laboratory studies have shown that silymarin and some other active constituents of milk thistle have anti-cancer activity. Milk thistle has been found to stop cancer cells from dividing and proliferating, shorten their life span, and reduce blood supply to cancerous tumors.
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