The health benefits of milk thistle are largely a result of one of its components: silybin. Learn how this clinically proven liver protector can also help lower the levels of harmful cholesterol.
Spanning many cultures and decades, milk thistle has earned the title of the premiere medicinal plant in maintaining liver health. Backed by an abundance of scientific documentation and personal experience, physicians and individuals with liver concerns support the regular use of milk thistle.
Silymarin is the medicinal extract of the milk thistle plant. However, researchers have demonstrated that one component of silymarin; silybin, is responsible for the majority of milk thistle’s health benefits. Silybin has been proven to reduce liver enzyme levels. This reduction in enzyme levels is a result of silybin’s liver cell protection and hepatocellular necrosis (liver cell death) prevention. Traditionally, people with liver disease have benefited most from silybin’s enzyme lowering properties. However, a new wave of research has demonstrated that silybin also displays enormous potential in reducing harmful cholesterol levels in the body.
The liver is incredibly dynamic, performing a multitude of crucial tasks, including the regulation of cholesterol. The relationship between the liver and cholesterol is multi-faceted:
· Synthesis of bile acids – Essential to the digestive process, the liver synthesizes bile acids from cholesterol. Bile acids emulsify dietary fat allowing for its absorption in the intestines.
· Liver circulation – If circulation is impeded in the liver, the blood will not flow easily through it, posing a health risk. When blood is slowed down in the portal vein, (where blood enters the liver), internal pressure mounts. This is known as portal hypertension, and accompanies a risk of blood vessels rupturing. Therefore, any circumstance that impedes blood flow in the liver, such as cirrhosis or venous cholesterol deposits, hampers the liver’s ability to safely accomplish its tasks.
· Removal of cholesterol – High-density lipoproteins (HDL) help remove excessive cholesterol from the body by transporting it to the liver for its breakdown and excretion. A diseased liver’s function will be decreased, including a diminished ability for it to remove excessive cholesterol from the blood supply. On the other hand, an abundance of HDL helps remove excess cholesterol, facilitating optimal liver processing.
· High cholesterol – Excessive cholesterol in the blood can deposit plaque along the vessels, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. While atherosclerosis is a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes, it can also cause or worsen liver disease, including fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.
Recent evidence suggests that silybin can positively impact cholesterol levels by improving the liver’s ability to metabolize lipids. This improvement comes via silybin’s regulation of lipids in the blood and its inhibiting of cholesterol synthesis. Since silybin increases bile production in the liver, it flushes out the cholesterol that builds up in the liver’s bile ducts. Additionally, the increased amount of bile going into the gut enhances the emulsification, digestion, absorption and elimination of dietary lipids. Many speculate that silybin’s ability to increase bile solubility may also help prevent or alleviate gallstones.
According to a 2006 Czech Republic study, milk thistle extract significantly reduced cholesterol absorption in rats fed a high cholesterol diet, as well as caused significant decreases in the harmful forms of cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides. Researchers concluded that the inhibition of cholesterol absorption caused by milk thistle extract could contribute to positive changes in cholesterol profiles and lipid content in the liver.
The increasing prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is another reason to include silybin in a healthcare routine. When it comes to simultaneous liver support and cholesterol reduction, few non-prescription drugs cover as many bases as silybin does. One animal study found that milk thistle extract worked as effectively as the cholesterol-lowering drug Probucol, with the additional benefit of substantially increasing HDL, the healthy form of cholesterol. As the most beneficial portion of milk thistle extract, silybin’s ability to protect liver cells, reduce liver cell death, inhibit cholesterol absorption and production, and increase the elimination of excess cholesterol, makes silybin a wise choice for individuals with both liver and cholesterol concerns.
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Nassuato G., Iemmola RM, Strazzabosco M, et al., Effect of Silibinin on biliary lipid composition, J Hepatol, May 1991.
Skottova N, Krecman V., Silymarin as a potential hypocholesterolameic drug, Pysiol. Res., 1998: 47.
Sobolova, L., Skottova N., Vecera R., Urbanek K., Effect of silymarin and its polyphenolic fraction on cholesterol absorption in rats, Pharmacol Res, Feb 2006.
www.naturalchoicejournal.com, Ask the Expert July 2002, Natural Choice Associates, 2006.
www.umm.edu, Milk Thistle, University of Maryland Medical Center, A.D.A.M., 2004.