How You Can Benefit From the Three Things I Never Knew About Milk Thistle

By Kerry Bone

Those of you who have been reading Nutrition & Healing and following natural medicine for awhile are probably already familiar with milk thistle (technically known in the herbal world as a Silybum marianum). I've told you before about it's remarkable ability to protect your liver from toxic attack-and the impressive research backing up this claim.1

But when I was updating my research files recently, I was surprised to find out that the health benefits of milk thistle don't just stop with the liver. In fact, the latest studies show that it has a much broader range of benefits, from type 2 diabetes and rosacea to reducing excess iron in the body.

Ease diabetes and boost heart health at the same time
One of the new milk thistle benefits I'm most excited about is its effect on type 2 diabetes. As you probably know, this condition has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and other western countries, so any natural method of controlling it is worth taking a closer look at. Some of the early research on silymarin, a concentrated extract from milk thistle, and diabetes was promising, but solid evidence has only come about in the last few years.

For example, in a trial published in 2006, treatment with 200 milligrams of silymarin three times a day dramatically improved blood sugar control.3 After four months the average fasting blood glucose level fell by 15 percent in the group taking the silymarin, whereas it rose by 13 percent in the placebo group. And glycated hemoglobin, which is the best measure of long-term blood sugar control, fell from 7.8 to 6.8 percent in the silymarin group. In stark contrast, it actually rose from 8.3 to 9.5 percent in the placebo group.

But the benefits weren't limited just to better blood sugar levels. One of the other hallmarks of type 2 diabetes is abnormal levels of fats in the blood, especially triglycerides. But milk thistle treatment also lowered triglyceride levels by 25 percent. The placebo group's triglycerides, on the other hand, rose by 12 percent. Cholesterol also went down by around 10 percent in the silymarin group.

Another even more recent study backs up this new use for milk thistle in type 2 diabetes. In this trial, researchers studied the effect of the herb in patients with long-standing diabetes that wasn't controlled well by diet or the drug glibenclamide.3 This study also lasted four months and the participants in the silymarin group took 200 mg/day. And like the other study, the average fasting blood glucose fell by 20 percent in the herbal group. Glycated hemoglobin fell by 16 percent. Changes in the placebo group were negligible. The silymarin patients also, quite surprisingly, lost weight. Body mass index (BMI) values fell significantly-by as much as 9 percent: The milk thistle appeared to cause an average weight loss of around 18 lbs.

But there's even more good news from this particular trial. The researchers found that the spike in blood glucose that occurs within four hours of a meal was flattened by a massive 37 percent in patients taking the silymarin, compared to a significant 19 percent rise in the placebo group.

The authors of the study suggest that all these benefits could be related in some way to the antioxidant properties of the herb. It may also be due to the effect of silymarin in inhibiting a key cell-signalling chemical known protein kinase C (PKC) that is abnormally raised in insulin resistance.

Erase redness-and excess iron

As for the other new benefits of milk thistle, let's start with rosacea. For those of you who may not be familiar with it, rosacea is an inflammatory skin condition that affects mainly the faces of older men and women, resulting in redness and acne. In a placebo-controlled clinical study I came across recently, researchers asked 46 patients battling the condition to apply either a placebo cream or a cream containing silymarin and MSM. The silymarin/ MSM group showed a significant improvement, with big reductions in redness, itching, and acne. General measures of skin health-such as hydration and color-were also dramatically improved.4

And last but certainly not least, a few years ago a group of Italian scientists found that silybin, one of the plant chemicals found in milk thistle and the silymarin extract, had a strong chelating capacity for iron.5 The authors suggested that the herb could be used for iron overload disorders and high ferritin levels (an indicator of iron stores). Since then, I've seen good results in my patients using 200mg of silymarin three times a day to reduce elevated ferritin or to help control the genetic iron overload disorder hemochromatosis. And now, my own observations (and those of the Italian researchers) have been confirmed in a clinical trial.

Researchers found that a silybin/ lecithin formula significantly reduced serum ferritin by around 15 percent over four weeks in patients with chronic hepatitis C.6 Of course, it's important to keep in mind that, while this effect is good in cases of iron overload, it's not so good if your iron levels are low-or even normal. So unless you know you've got too much, it's best not to take milk thistle with meals or at the same time of day as iron-containing supplements.

References:
1 Mills S, Bone K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. Churchill Livingstone: Edinburgh, 2000, pp 553-562.

2 Huseini HF, Larijani B, Hesmat R, et al. "The efficacy of Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (silymarin) in the treatment of type II diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial." Phytother Res 2006; 20(12): 1,036-1,039

3 Hussain SA. "Silymarin as an adjunct to glibenclamide therapy improves long-term and postprandial glycemic control and body mass index in type 2 diabetes." J Med Food 2007; 10(3): 543-547

4 Berardesca E, Cameli N, Cavallotti C, et al. "Combined effects of silymarin and methylsulfonylmethane in the management of rosacea: clinical and instrumental evaluation." J Cosmet Dermatol 2008; 7(1): 8-14

5 Borsari M, Gabbi C, Ghelfi F, et al. "Silybin, a new iron-chelating agent." J Inorg Biochem 2001; 85(2-3): 123-129

6 Bares JM, Berger J, Nelson JE, et al. "Silybin treatment is associated with reduction in serum ferritin in patients with chronic hepatitis C." J Clin Gastroenterol 2008; 42(8): 937-944


This article was published in the January, 2009 issue of the Dr. Jonathan V. Wright's Nutrition & Healing newsletter, and is presented here with permission.