(NaturalHealth365) Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is exactly what it sounds like – an accumulation of fat in the liver, along with a history of little or no drinking of alcoholic beverages. NAFLD is extremely common – some experts estimate its prevalence as up to 45 percent of the population in industrialized North America and Europe – and can be quite mild, with no noticeable symptoms. So let’s see how milk thistle, a natural herb, can help to prevent liver damage.
In severe cases, NAFLD is the start of a deadly progression that begins with excess fat in the liver, develops to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis – which involves liver inflammation and fibrosis – and ultimately results in such life-threatening complications as cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure.
Can milk thistle reduce the threat of NAFLD?
Milk thistle, scientifically known as Silybum marianum, has long been prized by herbalists and naturopaths as a tonic to help combat chronic liver and kidney problems. Now, animal and human studies have begun to reveal the extent of milk thistle’s healing powers and its multiple mechanisms of action – and supported its use as a safe and extremely promising treatment for NAFLD and its complications.
Metabolic syndrome is a leading cause of NAFLD; milk thistle’s mechanisms seem designed to guard against both conditions.
What is metabolic syndrome and how can milk thistle help protect the liver?
Metabolic syndrome is the overarching term for a laundry list of unhealthy conditions, which include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, inadequate blood sugar control and excess fat in the bloodstream. Metabolic syndrome is particularly harmful to the liver – as your system’s first line of defense against toxins, your liver bears the brunt of the impact of damaging substances such as fats, sugars, free radicals and medications.
Simply put, milk thistle improves liver function across the board. More specifically, it detoxifies the liver, reduces the harm caused by oxidative stress, regulates the metabolism of fats and helps to clear the blood of toxins – thereby suppressing insulin resistance, inflammation and obesity that contribute to both metabolic syndrome and its likely consequence: NAFLD.
In fact, in one animal study, silybin – a flavonoid found in milk thistle – was found to be more effective than the pharmaceutical antidiabetic medication rosiglitazone at stabilizing the energy-handling metabolism of liver cells.
Milk thistle extracts are capable of changing the very structure of liver cells in order to boost cell defense mechanisms – including increasing the amount and function of mitochondria in liver cells.
It is because of this cell-changing property that many researchers are crediting milk thistle with the ability to prevent liver fibrosis and the subsequent progression to cirrhosis.
I see references to both silybin and silymarin as milk thistle extracts, and the terms seem to be used interchangeably. Naturally, many people wonder ‘are they the same substance?’
Although silybin and silymarin are sometimes used as if they are synonymous, they are not quite the same thing. Silybin, which constitutes about 50 to 70 percent of silymarin extract, is one of 7 constituents that make up silymarin. An extremely strong antioxidant, silybin is considered the most active ingredient in silymarin.
What other studies support milk thistle extracts’ ability to treat NAFLD and its complications?
In a 2013 clinical study published in World Journal of Hepatology, the research team concluded that silybin is effective in reducing the biochemical, inflammatory and ultrasonic indices of fatty liver.
In an eight-week 2014 study published in Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine, patients with non alcoholic steatohepatitis were divided into two groups. All participants were given recommendations for lifestyle changes of diet and exercise, but only one group was given silybin, at the dosage of 210 mg per day. The silybin group had significantly greater reductions in serum enzymes overall than a control group that didn’t receive the extract.
Researchers recognized that silybin is a “useful” herbal treatment, and noted its safety and lack of adverse effects.
What’s the best way to use milk thistle extracts?
Look for non-GMO, non-irradiated milk thistle products that are standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent silymarin – usually available in dosages of 120 to 140 milligrams. Because silymarin and its constituents don’t dissolve well in water, look for silymarin-phosphatydalcholine complex; the lipid boosts absorption of the silymarin for maximum health benefits.