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Silymarin: A Potent Antioxidant,

Liver Protector, and Anti-Cancer Agent

Silymarin is a unique flavonoid complex containing silybin,

silydianin, and silychrisin that is derived from the milk thistle

plant. These unique phytochemicals from the milk thistle have been

the subject of decades of research into their beneficial properties.

Milk thistle's common name comes from the white markings on the

leaves, its milky white sap, and its traditional use by nursing

mothers to increase milk. But it is best known for its use as a

liver protectant and decongestant, which can be traced to the Greeks

and Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), who wrote that it was excellent

for "carrying off bile." The famous English herbalist Culpepper

(1616-1654) used milk thistle to cleanse the liver and spleen, and

to treat jaundice and gallstones.1

Silymarin is derived from the Milk Thistle plant.

In the U.S., the Eclectics, a prominent group of American

doctors who practiced during the 20th century, used it for liver

problems, and to treat varicose veins, menstrual problems, and

spleen and kidney disorders. The plant was also cultivated as a

food, providing leaves for salad, seeds for a coffee-like drink, and

flowers, which were eaten as artichokes are today.1 In 1968, a group

of German scientists discovered the active flavonoid complex

silymarin, which provides milk thistle's medicinal benefits.2

Since then, hundreds of studies have been done on silymarin, and it

is approved in the German Commission E Monographs (the most accurate

information available on the safety and efficacy of herbs) as a

supportive treatment for inflammatory liver conditions such as

cirrhosis, hepatitis, and fatty infiltration caused by alcohol and

other toxins.3

Silymarin is used to:

· Regenerate liver cells damaged by alcohol or drugs

· Decongest the liver (A liver decongestant stimulates bile

flow through the liver and gallbladder, thus reducing stagnation and

preventing gallstone formation and bile-induced liver damage.)

· Increase the survival rate of patients with cirrhosis4

· Complement the treatment of viral hepatitis5

· Protect against industrial poisons, such as carbon

tetracholoride (a colorless gass that leaks into air, water and soil

near manufacturing and waste sites)6

· Protect the liver against pharmaceuticals that stress the

liver, such as acetaminophen and tetracycline1

· Antidote and prevent poisoning from the death cap mushroom,

Amanita phalloides 7,8,9

How does silymarin work?

· As an antioxidant, silymarin scavenges for free radicals

that can damage cells exposed to toxins. Silymarin has been said to

be at least ten times more potent in antioxidant activity than

vitamin E.10-12

· It increases glutathione in the liver by more than 35% in

healthy subjects and by more than 50% in rats.13 Glutathione is

responsible for detoxifying a wide range of hormones, drugs, and

chemicals. High levels of glutathione in the liver increases its

capacity for detoxification.

· Silymarin also increases the level of the important

antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase in cell cultures.14

· It stimulates protein synthesis in the liver, which results

in an increase in the production of new liver cells to replace the

damaged ones.15

· Silymarin inhibits the synthesis of leukotrienes (mediators

of inflammation, which can result in psoriasis, among other


Scientific studies

As we've seen, silymarin has proved to be successful in treating

alcohol-related liver disease. In one study, researchers assessed

the benefits of milk thistle extract on 170 patients, 91 of them

alcoholics with liver cirrhosis. Subjects received 140 mg. silymarin

three times a day for 41 months. The four-year survival rate was 58

percent in the silymarin group and 39 percent in the placebo group.

The reduced death rate among those taking silymarin was most

pronounced in the alcoholic cirrhosis subgroup. There were no side

effects from silymarin.4

This study is significant for several reasons. Since there were no

side effects, the results support the idea that long-term treatment

is beneficial and not likely to be harmful. These results also

indicate that silymarin may be particularly effective for patients

with alcohol-induced liver damage.

Effective in fighting several cancers

Although German scientists first discovered the protective effects

of silymarin on liver function in the late 1960s, its impressive

cancer-fighting properties were just discovered in the last decade.

While it is not surprising that an antioxidant like silymarin would

have anti-cancer effects, the molecular effects of silymarin that

give it powerful anti-cancer properties have amazed even the

scientific community. In the last few years, researchers have begun

to discover exactly why silymarin has such broad anti-cancer


Among the most promising cancer fighting strategies that researchers

are trying to develop are angiogenesis inhibitors (which stop the

proliferation of blood vessels that feed tumors), cell cycle

regulators, and selective promoters of cancer cell death. Amazingly,

silymarin has been shown to possess all of these abilities. A review

of research into silymarin's effects on prostate cancer (published

February 4, 2004) concluded that silymarin has a huge potential to

interfere with many molecular events involved in cancer cell growth,

progression, and angiogenesis. The authors also stated that

silymarin has recently entered clinical trials in prostate cancer

patients because of "its non-toxic and mechanism-based strong

preventive/therapeutic efficacy." 17

Because of this you would expect silymarin to have activity against

a broad range of cancer types, and an examination of the literature

shows that silymarin has impressive effects against prostate18,

colon19, ovarian20, skin21, lung22, breast23, and cervical cancers24

in preliminary studies. In the cases of prostate and ovarian cancer,

human clinical trials are currently underway both in the USA and


Offers hope for the prevention of cancer and as an adjunct treatment

The novel and unique ways that silymarin fights cancer means that it

may offer hope not only for the prevention of cancer, but also for

the treatment of cancer, both alone and when combined with existing

cancer drugs. This is because silymarin has shown direct tumor

killing properties of its own, and is also synergistically effective

with two popular chemotherapy agents, doxorubicin and


Why isn't silymarin being hailed as a cancer drug in the medical


With such an impressive list of accomplishments you would expect

silymarin to be quickly developed as a broad-spectrum cancer

fighter. But as a natural, herbal product that has been used for

more than 30 years primarily for liver problems, it has a strike

against it. If it were a new drug that had been developed and

patented by a pharmaceutical company, it would be hailed as a

potential breakthrough in the fight against cancer. But no

pharmaceutical company wants to spend millions of dollars doing

research on an herb that can't be patented.

Unfortunately, interest in researching silymarin's efficacy at

fighting cancer in humans has only been promoted by a small group of

dedicated scientists who have recognized silymarin's novel,

powerful, and multiple cancer fighting properties. One can only hope

that silymarin's natural origins don't condemn it to becoming only a

scientific curiosity.

Silybin/Phospholipid Complex (Silyphos)

Two recent innovations in silymarin supplementation have greatly

enhanced the benefits we can obtain from silymarin. The first was

the discovery that silybin, one of several flavonoids found in

the "silymarin fraction" extracted from milk thistle, is the most

potent constituent. Because of this, techniques were developed to

further purify silymarin to obtain pure silybin. Because silybin is

now recognized as the active flavonoid in silymarin, most recent

research has utilized pure silybin rather than silymarin itself.

One of the inherent problems with oral silymarin or silybin

supplementation is its very poor absorption. Recently, a new complex

of silybin and natural phospholipids was developed. This improved

product is known by the name of Silyphos. By complexing silybin with

phospholipids, scientists were able to make silybin into a much more

soluble and better-absorbed form.

This silybin/phospholipid complex (Silyphos) was found to have

significantly improved bioavailability, up to ten times better

absorption, and greater effectiveness.27,28,29 This dramatically

enhances the benefits of silybin, because typical silymarin extracts

and silybin are very poorly utilized when taken orally.

How safe is silymarin?

Milk thistle has been safely used as a medicinal herb for centuries.

Although its effects can be quite dramatic, it is gentle and well


Speak with your health care professional if you have cancer and are

on chemotherapy drugs, before taking this or any other herb. Studies

show that some chemotherapy drugs have a synergistic effect with

silymarin and may increase the drug's effects. If you're taking

drugs known to cause liver damage (like acetaminophen), silymarin

may help repair and prevent future damage.

An antidote to environmental toxins

James Duke, Ph.D., a leading authority on healing herbs, says "Even

if you don't have liver damage or liver disease, milk thistle helps

improve liver function by helping the liver remove toxins from your

body."30 In this modern world filled with environmental and chemical

toxins, silymarin is an antioxidant you just might want to add to

your nutritional supplement regimen.

While milk thistle and silymarin have had decades of very positive

results for protecting the liver, recent studies into silybin's

remarkable anti-cancer properties have provided even more compelling

reasons to consider supplementation. And now, with the advent of the

more potent and much better utilized Silybin/Phospholipid Complex

(Silyphos), the amazing benefits contained within the milk thistle

are available to everyone.


1. Presser, Arthur. Pharmacist's Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Smart

Publications, Petaluma, CA, 2000.pp 259-260.

2. Wagner, H., et al. "The Chemistry of Silymarin (Silybin), the

Active Principle of the Fruits of Silybum marianum." Arzneim-Forsch

Drug Res. 1968; 18:688-96.


3. Blumenthal M, Busse W Goldberg A, eds. The Complete German

Commission E Monographs. 1998; Austin, TX: American Botanical

Council; Boston: Integrative Medical Communications.

4. Ferenci P, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of silymarin

treatment in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. J Hepatol



5. Berenguer J and Carrasco D. Double-blind trial of silymarin

versus placebo in the treatment of chronic hepatitis. Muench Med

Wochenschr 1977; 119, 240-260.

6. Wagner H. Plant constituents with antihepatotoxic activity.

Natural Products as Medicinal Agents (Beal JL and Reinhard E, eds.)

1981; Hippokrates-Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany.

7. Faulstich H, et al. Silybin inhibition of amatoxin uptake in the

perfused rat liver. Arzneim-Forsch Drug Res 1980;30:452-4


8. Tuchwever B, et al. Prevention of silybin of phalloidin induced

acute hepatoxicity. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 1979;51:265-75.


9. Catalina MV, Nunez O, Ponferrada A, Menchen L, Matilla A,

Clemente G, Banares R. [Liver failure due to mushroom poisoning:

clinical course and new treatment perspectives] [Article in Spanish]

Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2003; Aug-Sep;26(7):417-20.


10. Awang D. Milk thistle. Can Pharm J 1993; 422, 403-404.

11. Wagner H. Antihepatotoxic flavonoids. Plant Flavonoids in

Biology and medicine: Biochemical, Pharmacological, and Structure-

Activity Relationships. 1986; Alan R. Liss, New York, pp. 545-558.

12. Adzet T. Polyphenolic compounds with biological and

pharmacological activity. Herbs Spices Med Plants 1986;1,167-184.

13. Valenzuela A, et al. Selectivity of silymarin on the increase of

the glutathione content in different tissues of the rat. Planta

Medica 1989; 55, 420-422.


14. Muzes G, et al. Effect of the bioflavonoid silymarin on the in

vitro activity and expression of super oxide dismutase (SOD) enzyme.

1991; Acta Physiol Hungarica 78, 3-9.


15. Fiebrich G and Koch H. Silymarin, an inhibitor of lipoxygenase.

Experientia 1979; 35,148-150.

16. Nassuato G, Iemmolo RM, Strazzabosco M, et al. Effect of

silibinin on biliary lipidcomposition: experimental and clinical

study. J Hepatol 1991; 12: 290-5.

17. Singh RP, Agarwal R, Prostate cancer prevention by silibinin,

Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2004 Feb;4(1):1-11).


18. Zi X, Agarwal R. Silibinin decreases prostate-specific antigen

with cell growth inhibition via G1 arrest, leading to

differentiation of prostate carcinoma cells: implications for

prostate cancer intervention. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1999; 96: 7490-



19. Yang SH, Lin JK, Chen WS, Chiu JH.Anti-angiogenic effect of

silymarin on colon cancer LoVo cell line. J Surg Res. 2003; Jul;113



20. Gallo D, Giacomelli S, Ferlini C, Raspaglio G, Apollonio P,

Prislei S, Riva A, Morazzoni P, Bombardelli E, Scambia G. Antitumour

activity of the silybin-phosphatidylcholine complex, IdB 1016,

against human ovarian cancer. Eur J Cancer. 2003; Nov;39(16):2403-



21. Singh RP, Agarwal R, Flavonoid antioxidant silymarin and skin

cancer, Antioxid Redox Signal. 2002 Aug;4(4):655-63.


22. Sharma G, Singh RP, Chan DC, Agarwal R, Silibinin induces growth

inhibition and apoptotic cell death in human lung carcinoma cells,

Anticancer Res. 2003 May-Jun;23(3B):2649-55.


23. Zi X, Feyes DK, Agarwal R, Anticarcinogenic effect of a

flavonoid antioxidant, silymarin, in human breast cancer cells MDA-

MB 468: induction of G1 arrest through an increase in Cip1/p21

concomitant with a decrease in kinase activity of cyclin-dependent

kinases and associated cyclins, Clin Cancer Res. 1998 Apr;4(4):1055-



24. Bhatia N, Zhao J, Wolf DM, Agarwal R, Inhibition of human

carcinoma cell growth and DNA synthesis by silibinin, an active

constituent of milk thistle: comparison with silymarin, Cancer Lett.

1999 Dec 1;147(1-2):77-84.


25. Scambia G, De Vincenzo R, Ranelletti FO, et al,

Antiproliferative effect of silybin on gynaecological malignancies:

synergism with cisplatin and doxorubicin, Eur J Cancer. 1996 May;32A



26. Dhanalakshmi S, Agarwal P, Glode LM, Agarwal R, Silibinin

sensitizes human prostate carcinoma DU145 cells to cisplatin- and

carboplatin-induced growth inhibition and apoptotic death, Int J

Cancer. 2003 Sep 20;106(5):699-705.


27. Morazzoni P, Montalbetti A, Malandrino S, Pifferi G, Comparative

pharmacokinetics of silipide and silymarin in rats, Eur J Drug Metab

Pharmacokinet. 1993 Jul-Sep;18(3):289-97.


28. Schandalik R, Gatti G, Perucca E, Pharmacokinetics of silybin in

bile following administration of silipide and silymarin in

cholecystectomy patients, Arzneimittelforschung. 1992 Jul;42(7):964-



29. Comoglio A, Tomasi A, Malandrino S, Poli G, Albano E.,

Scavenging effect of silipide, a new silybin-phospholipid complex,

on ethanol-derived free radicals, Biochem Pharmacol. 1995 Oct 12;50



30. Duke, James. A. The Green Pharmacy. Rodale Press. 1977

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Hi Karen,

no, i am not taking this. i just received this email from my doctor, it is written and researched by him. i am in seoul, sk, and i think the research here is phenomenal.

my dad is the one who had cancer. he died two years ago. however, i just can't seem to leave this board. when my doctor sent me this, i took particular notice of the chemo drug cisplatin and used with conjunction with this had great results. my dad had cisplatin, however, it was not as effective as it could have been.

taking this does not cause any side effects or long term harm.

for the people on this board who are still fighting this disease, i thought it would be useful to have this information.

i hope it helps.


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Very nice of you to supply information.

I use this supplement and it is only one of three I use. I’m a hard sell and the research you supplied seems to be accepted by all sides. I have yet to hear a detractor for this.

I would prefer to take a natural form of this. Anyone have any information on eating a milk thistle bush.

Medicine seems to be different in the Asian countries. Do you have any insight as to why?

Sorry for your fathers passing and thanks for hanging to help


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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi BoBennett,

I noticed your post about Silymarin. You mentioned that it is one of three supplements that you take. Sounds like you are doing great in your cancer fight and I would sure like to hear more. Would you mind sharing with us what the other two supplements are? I would also be interested in amounts taken and a good source for purchasing, if possible.

Thank you.

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