Silymarin, a potent antioxidant, has long been appreciated for enhancing liver function, and recent research shows that it can greatly improve blood-sugar control in people with diabetes. Silymarin may also help prevent cancer and reduce side effects from conventional cancer therapies.
Silymarin is extracted from the seeds of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), a plant native to the Mediterranean region.
Silymarin is one of the best-researched herbal supplements. Much of the science has focused on improving liver function and reducing levels of liver enzymes.
Silymarin and milk thistle are often considered "liver-cleansing" supplements, but the mode of action has more to do with enhancing liver function than cleansing per se. The liver breaks down harmful compounds, but the organ can be overwhelmed by large amounts of toxins or chronic infection. When liver cells are damaged, enzymes leak out and enter the bloodstream.
Silymarin has been used to resolve these and many other liver disorders by working as an anti-inflammatory, and possibly enhancing glutathione production. Significantly, silymarin also stimulates the production of new liver cells by accelerating protein and DNA synthesis.
Diabetes. The liver works in tandem with the pancreas to regulate blood-sugar levels. So far, three studies of people with diabetes have found that supplemental silymarin improves most indicators of blood-sugar control. In a four-month study published in Phytotherapy Research in 2006, silymarin led to a 15 percent decrease in blood sugar, a 13 percent decrease in glycated hemoglobin and a 25 percent drop in fasting insulin levels. A separate study found a 20 percent decrease in fasting blood sugar, 37 percent decline in post-meal blood sugar and a 16 percent decrease in glycated hemoglobin —plus an 8.5 percent reduction in weight (Journal of Medicinal Food, 2007).
Cancer. Silymarin's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may reduce the risk of cancer. It appears to enhance the effectiveness of conventional cancer therapies while also reducing their toxicity. Human, animal and cell studies have found that silymarin may be particularly helpful during the treatment of breast, ovarian, liver and prostate cancer, according to reports in Integrative Cancer Therapies (2007) and other journals.
How to use silymarin
Opt for a standardized silymarin product, extracted from the seeds (not other parts) of milk thistle. It should be standardized to 70 percent to 80 percent silymarin. The active constituents of silymarin are concentrated and therefore more potent, compared with whole milk thistle. Because silymarin is not water soluble, do not attempt to consume it as a tea.
Tips for retailers
Remember three more points about silymarin:
Jack Challem, is a personal-nutrition coach in Tucson, Ariz. His latest books are The Food-Mood Solution and Stop Prediabetes Now. Email him at [email protected] with "NFM" in the subject line
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 34