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Hep C Update: New Evidence for Milk Thistle

Nicole Cutler L.Ac. March 12, 2010

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A recent study from Columbia University Medical Center on milk thistle gives those who are unsure about using herbal supplements for Hepatitis C reason to reconsider.

An estimated four to five million Americans are chronically infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). While approximately half of those with HCV are able to clear it from their liver with the current standard of treatment, the remaining fifty percent must protect their liver from this virus. One of the most advised and respected ways to accomplish this goal is with the herb milk thistle. Despite decades of studies demonstrating milk thistle’s ability to protect and support the liver, skeptics have always doubted herbal medicine’s potential. New research released from Columbia University Medical Center gives those with Hepatitis C one more reason to supplement with this amazing herb.

For those who are not candidates for, or who don’t respond to Hepatitis C treatment, there is little a physician can prescribe to prevent HCV from progressing to advanced liver disease. To prevent further damage to this key organ, alternative medical practitioners often turn to herbal supplements that support the liver via:

  1. aiding in detoxification
  2. neutralizing threats to the liver (like free radicals)
  3. helping liver cells deflect potential hazards

Milk thistle is believed to accomplish all three of these goals. Thus, it is no surprise that those with Hepatitis C choose milk thistle more than any other vitamin or herbal supplement.

A plant native to Europe, milk thistle has a long history of use as a folk remedy for liver and gallbladder disorders. Although milk thistle does not possess antiviral properties, hundreds of studies have concluded that it helps maintain liver health – even in the presence of a liver-damaging virus.

Even with all of the documented benefits of milk thistle, many people remain wary of herbal medicine. This viewpoint could stem from the following:

  • Not having enough information – From the moment we are born, our culture is steeped in western medical practices. Learning about herbal medicine requires expanding what we know about human health.
  • A trusted physician’s influence over their patients – Physicians without training in herbal medicine often discourage their patients from taking herbs because they do not know how they will react with pharmaceuticals.
  • Wanting fast results – In lieu of patiently strengthening a weakened body system (as herbs usually do), many people desire a quick fix (as pharmaceuticals usually do).
  • Fear of herb quality – Because they are not held to strict government regulation, many herbs are not subject to the same kind of standardization and purification specifications as drugs are. Thus, un-researched herbs have the potential for having contaminants or not being as potent as advertised.

There are admitted limits to both western medicine and herbal medicine. Those whose health seems to benefit the most are individuals who combine the strengths of both disciplines. To evaluate the potential of herbal medicine in the western setting, Elena Ladas, MS, RD, of Columbia University Medical Center and colleagues set out to test whether milk thistle could help treat people with chemotherapy-associated liver problems. As published in the December 2009 edition of the journal Cancer, milk thistle’s ability to treat chemotherapy-associated hepatotoxicity was investigated.

Upon administering milk thistle to children who had acute lymphoblastic leukemia with liver toxicity related to chemotherapy, the research team found the following:

  • Those who had received milk thistle had improvements in their liver enzymes (significantly lower levels of AST and ALT) compared to the children in the placebo group.
  • Milk thistle also seemed to help keep fewer patients from having to lower the dose of their chemotherapy drugs (61 percent vs. 72 percent).
  • Milk thistle did not interfere with chemo’s cancer-fighting properties.

Ladas’ study has little to do with Hepatitis C. However, it does provide those with chronic liver disease more reason to trust milk thistle’s ability to safely shield the liver from toxins.

As more professionals in both the fields of western medicine and alternative healthcare recognize how these disciplines can help one another, the use of herbs alongside pharmaceuticals will continue to grow. Western medicine has been making great strides in developing a drug regimen that will see a greater percentage of people triumph over Hepatitis C. Until a cure is ensured for everyone with HCV, people will be searching for ways to keep their liver healthy. Thanks in part to studies like this one from Columbia University Medical Center, supplementing with milk thistle is becoming a standard practice for those with Hepatitis C, both in alternative healthcare environments AND in most western medical physicians’ offices.

References:

http://altmedicine.about.com/cs/herbsvitaminsad/a/Milk_Thistle.htm, Milk Thistle, Cathy Wong, Retrieved December 24, 2009, About.com, 2009.
http://www.hepatitis-central.com/mt/archives/2009/08/four_more_benef.html, Four More Key Benefits of Milk Thistle, Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., Retrieved December 25, 2009, Natural Wellness, 2009.
http://www.ktradionetwork.com/2009/12/15/herb-may-treat-chemotherapy-liver-damage/, Herb May Treat Chemotherapy Liver Damage, Steven Reinberg, Retrieved December 24, 2009, The Kevin Trudeau Show, 2009.
http://www.webmd.com/cancer/news/20091214/herb-may-treat-chemotherapy-liver-damage, Herb May Treat Chemotherapy Liver Damage, Bill Hendrick, Retrieved December 23, 2009, WebMD, LLC, December 2009.
http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123211007/abstract, A randomized, controlled, double-blind, pilot study of milk thistle for the treatment of hepatotoxicity in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Elena J. Ladas, MS, RD, Retrieved December 23, 2009, Cancer, December 2009.

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