Health Tips: Milk Thistle for Liver Health

Support the health of your largest internal organ.
By Tuesdae Stainbrook, DO, MPH

The liver is the largest internal organ (about the size of a football), located on the right side of your body under the ribcage. The liver clears waste products from your blood. These waste products come from medicine, food, and alcohol consumption. It filters 540 gallons of blood a day (1.5 quarts per minute!). The liver also regulates blood sugars, creates clotting factors, produces hormones and proteins, and helps in digesting fats. It also acts as a storage container for vitamins and minerals.

Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne viral disease in the United States. It is estimated that over four to five million people may be infected. It is four times more common than HIV. Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver and can be caused by medicine, alcohol abuse, autoimmune diseases, fatty deposits, or viruses. Signs of hepatitis include abdominal pain, fever, fatigue, yellowing of the skin (jaundice) and eyes, flu-like illness, dark urine, loss of appetite, muscle aches, or nausea and vomiting. Often, people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected since most have no symptoms of chronic infection.

Hepatitis C can be treated with conventional medicine, yet pre- and post-treatment with an herb known as milk thistle can improve liver health, as well. However, it should not be taken at the same time as conventional treatment for hepatitis C.

Milk thistle is a plant found throughout the world. Its unique name comes from the milky white sap that oozes from its crushed leaves. The most important part of milk thistle is its silymarin-containing seeds. For over 2000 years milk thistle has been used for medicinal purposes to treat end-stage liver disease, liver cirrhosis, and liver cancer as it reduces inflammation and stimulates regeneration of liver cells.

Doses of milk thistle up to 1500 mg are considered safe, but the most common recommended dose for chronic hepatitis is 200 to 800 mg per day. Side effects from milk thistle are uncommon, with the most frequent being mild stomach upset. It is not recommended for use by pregnant or breastfeeding women. Keep in mind milk thistle is not a substitute for conventional treatment of hepatitis C.

There is always a potential for drug interaction since milk thistle is processed by the liver; always speak with your doctor before taking it. Some common medications that milk thistle interacts with are birth control pills, cholesterol medication, blood thinners, and anti-psychotics.