Editor’s Note: The following is for informational purposes only, and not intended to replace nor supersede the advice of a physician. Always seek a doctor’s permission prior to beginning any new dietary or supplementary changes.
Widely regarded for protecting and supporting liver health, milk thistle is one of the most common herbal supplements available today. Traditionally taken by those with some kind of liver concern, a growing body of research consistently indicates another important therapeutic action for milk thistle. While cancer can develop just about anywhere in the human body, milk thistle seems to have an ability to interfere with its growth regardless of the cancer’s location. Over the past decade, positive results of milk thistle preventing, slowing or reversing cancer in a variety of different tissue types have been published in peer-reviewed, respected medical journals.
Cancer is the result of an abnormality in cell growth:
- Normally, the body maintains a system of checks and balances on cell growth so that cell division produces new cells only when needed.
- Disruption of these checks and balances can lead to uncontrolled cell division and proliferation of cells.
- This uncontrolled, abnormal cell production eventually forms a mass known as a tumor.
- Tumors can be benign or malignant.
- Benign tumors can usually be removed and do not spread to other parts of the body.
- Malignant tumors are cancerous and can grow aggressively, capable of invading and spreading to other areas of the body.
About Milk Thistle
Commonly known as milk thistle, Silybum marianum is a plant with a long history of being used as an herbal remedy for liver and gallbladder problems. The extract from milk thistle seeds contains a flavonoid called silymarin, a biologically active substance that has demonstrated the ability to:
- Protect liver cells from toxins, viruses and alcohol
- Strengthen the perimeter of liver cell membranes
- Support the growth of new liver cells
Although hundreds of trials have sought to validate and understand milk thistle’s effect on liver health, cancer research is a relatively new, exciting direction for milk thistle studies.
Milk Thistle for Cancer
No individual physician, organization or research collective has endorsed milk thistle for cancer treatment; however, that could change in the future. Investigators have been and continue to gather evidence in favor of milk thistle’s ability to deter cancer growth. Described below, some highlights of this research are outlined in synopses from various medical journals:
- Liver Cancer – As published in an October 2007 edition of the World Journal of Gastroenterology, California researchers investigated the effects and mechanisms of silibinin (the most active constituent of silymarin) on the growth of the most common type of liver cancer. In various liver cancer cell lines, the researchers found that silibinin exhibited potent anti-cancer effects.
- Colon Cancer – As published in the November 2003 edition of the journal Oncogene, Colorado researchers investigated the anti-cancer effects of silibinin in human colon cancer cell lines. Their results confirmed that silibinin helped regulate the cell cycle and interfere with colon cancer cell proliferation.
- Pancreatic Cancer – As published in the August 2011 edition of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Chinese researchers investigated if silibinin could inhibit pancreatic cancer growth. They found that silibinin effectively inhibited several pancreatic cancer cell lines.
- Cervical Cancer – As published in the April 2012 edition of Cell Biochemistry and Function, Chinese researchers assessed the effect of silibinin on the human cervical cancer cell cycle. They found a dose-dependent relationship between cervical cancer cell death and silibinin, prompting the demand for consideration of silibinin as a preventative and intervention strategy for cervical cancer.
- Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia – As published in the January 2010 edition of the journal Cancer, New York researchers investigated the use of milk thistle for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (a type of blood cancer) with chemotherapy-related hepatotoxicity. They found that milk thistle supported a decrease in the harmful effects of chemotherapy on the liver without working against the cancer treatment. The children taking milk thistle needed fewer chemotherapy dose reductions because of side effects than the children who did not take milk thistle.
- Breast Cancer – As published in the June 2009 edition of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, Canadian researchers determined that silibinin exhibited anti-proliferative activity on a certain type of breast cancer cell. More specifically, they identified a possible molecular mechanism involved in silibinin’s blocking of cancerous cell growth.
Although these six types of cancer cells appear to retreat in the presence of silibinin (or the patients benefit from milk thistle), this list is not exhaustive. Researchers have found similar effects of silibinin on lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer and kidney cancer cells.
There is little doubt that milk thistle contains anti-carcinogenic properties. However, only time and a great deal more research will tell if some type of silibinin preparation could actually prevent or treat one or many types of human carcinomas.