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UltraThistle vs. Maximum Milk Thistle

Can Milk Thistle Prevent Liver Cancer?

Thanks to recent liver cancer research, the long history of milk thistle’s effectiveness in protecting the liver gains even more credibility.

Editor’s Note: This is intended for informational purposes only, and not to replace nor supersede the advice of a physician. Always seek a doctor’s permission prior to beginning any new dietary or supplementary changes.

Used as an herbal remedy for a variety of health ailments, practitioners have been recommending milk thistle preparations since the 1800s. Most commonly advised to prevent or treat viral hepatitis, alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver disease and exposure to toxins, new research delivers one more reason for those with chronic liver disease to take a milk thistle supplement. In the last quarter of 2007, California scientists established that milk thistle’s most active constituent demonstrates an anti-liver cancer effect.

Liver Cancer
With chronic liver disease, damage to liver cells may include altering the genes inside cells in a way that causes them to become cancerous. As the fifth most common cancer in the world, liver cancer is a very aggressive disease. While researchers are continuously searching and finding innovative ways to understand and fight liver cancer, only a small percentage of people diagnosed survive more than one year.

As the most commonly occurring cancer that originates in the liver, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cases have steadily risen over the past 10 years. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed an increase in the number of cases of HCC in the United States over the past 20 years to the spread of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C viruses. HCC’s limited treatment remedies and poor prognosis emphasize the importance in developing effective chemoprevention for this disease.

Milk Thistle
Many experts believe that the best way to prevent chronic liver disease from developing into HCC is by protecting this organ from suffering any further damage. Supplementing with milk thistle appears to be a favored approach for this purpose.

Since milk thistle extract has been used for over 2000 years for supporting liver health, the clinical and empirical evidence has gained a substantial following. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there is proof that milk thistle may be hepatoprotective through a number of mechanisms including:

· antioxidant activity
· toxin blockade at the membrane level
· enhanced protein synthesis
· anti-fibrotic activity
· anti-inflammatory action
· immune modulating effects

Considered by herbalists to be the top choice for protecting the liver from toxins, inflammation and deterioration, milk thistle is the most frequently prescribed herb for liver health in the United States.

The Active Ingredient
The majority of the medicinal properties of the milk thistle plant are concentrated in its seeds. Known collectively as silymarin, the mixture of flavonoids extracted from these seeds is standardized to compose most milk thistle extracts available to the public. However, silymarin is not just a single substance; it’s a mixture primarily composed of three flavonoids:

1. Silydianin
2. Silychristin
3. Silybin (also known as silybinin or silibinin)

Because silybin is the most biologically active member of these flavonoids, it is preferred by practitioners and consumers who desire the therapeutic effects of milk thistle. With a defined chemical structure and molecular weight, silybin is a highly refined form of milk thistle.

New Research
Published in the October 28, 2007 issue of World Journal of Gastroenterology, Dr. Ke-Qin Hu and his research team from the University of California, Irvine, demonstrated that silybin demonstrates anti-cancer effects. Dr. Hu has published over 70 scientific articles in various medical professional journals; many of which focus on viral Hepatitis B and C, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Indicating milk thistle’s broad spectrum of anti-liver cancer effects, the researchers found that silybin can significantly reduce the growth of four different human liver cancer cell lines. In addition, they demonstrated that silybin exhibits its anti-liver cancer effects by:

1. reducing cancer cell proliferation and cell cycle progression
2. enhancing programmed death of cancer cells
3. altering chromatin structure of the cancer cells

The results of this study indicate that silybin may be useful in preventing the development of liver cancer. Although conducted in a laboratory, this purified form of milk thistle displays obvious mechanisms against HCC. The researchers concluded that this evidence provides enough reason to evaluate silybin in living humans for the prevention of liver cancer.

No Health Claim
Although the scientific proof leaves little room for doubt, you will not see milk thistle supplements promoted to prevent liver cancer. Such a statement would violate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines for herbal supplement health claims. While the FDA’s restrictions function to protect consumers from outrageously based claims, it does leave the consumer left to do their own research on natural healthcare products.

Until modern medicine pinpoints the exact mechanism by which liver cancer develops, attempts to prevent this disease will be based on the knowledge acquired thus far. Although not yet proven to prevent the progression of chronic liver disease to HCC in humans, the evidence suggests that taking milk thistle is definitely worth a try., Silibinin, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2007.

Lah JJ, Cui W, Hu KQ. Effects and mechanisms of silibinin on human hepatoma cell lines. World Journal of Gastroenterology, October 28, 2007.

Varghese, Leyon, et al., Silibinin Efficacy Against Human Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Clinical Cancer Research, December 1, 2005., Milk Thistle, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2007., About Your Liver, Schering Corporation, 2007., Silibinin: The Herbal Extract that Protects the Liver, Romy Fox, Life Extension Vitamin Supplies and Life Extension Institute, Inc., 2007., Scientific Evidence Of The Significant Anti-cancer Effect Of Milk Thistle, ScienceDaily LLC, 2007., Milk Thistle, A.D.A.M., Inc., University of Maryland Medical Center, 2007.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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