Ask the Expert: Does Milk Thistle Help With Liver Diseases?

Milk Thistle


I heard my friends telling me that milk thistle helps with liver diseases. Is this true?


Although the Cochrane review concluded that the milk thistle or St Mary’s thistle (Silybum marianum, seed) has no statistically significant effect on liver diseases, it is still claimed as a reasonable complementary medicine to support the liver health (Australia Pharmaceutical Formulary and Handbook 2012).

In my opinion, milk thistle contains several therapeutic properties that are ‘pharmacologically convinced’ to be essential and beneficial for liver health. To list but a few:

  • Antioxidant and free radical scavenging action – the best way to rejuvenate liver cells (hepatocyte) is through oxygenation (increasing oxygen within tissues). Antioxidants prevent free radical damage from oxygenation. Besides, it also helps to repair damaged tissues from drugs and alcohol.
  • Anti-inflammatory – it helps to stabilise the nasty cells (Ito cell) in the liver from secreting collagen scar tissues. Ito cells are commonly activated if the liver is infected, such as in viral hepatitis.
  • Lowers cholesterol levels – cholesterol is produced in the liver. It may be useful in preventing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

In conclusion, milk thistle is suggested for people who have no liver complications to maintain liver health. This is because whatever it is we have consumed will always first pass through the liver, and it is also called first-pass effect in drug metabolism. For instance, if we consume alcohol excessively, we may expectedly end up with liver damage (cirrhosis).


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Contributed by: Rachel Gan MPharm (UK), RPH, MMPS, Clinical pharmacist, proprietor of Alive Pharmacy Sdn Bhd

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