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Novel Method Boosts Milk Thistle Liver Concentration 10-Fold!

January 2014

By Raegan Linton

Increasing Milk Thistle Absorption
Increasing Milk Thistle Absorption

As beneficial as milk thistle is, there’s one thing keeping it from reaching its fullest potential: silybin, the star component of silymarin, does not dissolve well in water.20,25 That makes it have poor bioavailability, meaning it’s difficult for your body to absorb.11-13,24

But scientists have now developed a simple but effective technology to overcome silybin’s poor bioavailability. The solution is to mix the silybin with a nutrient called phosphatidylcholine.

Phosphatidylcholine is a major component of cell membranes; it can facilitate transport across the cells lining the intestines, making it an ideal “carrier molecule” for silybin.24,47 Scientists believe that the phosphatidylcholine molecularly bonds to the silybin molecule and wraps around it, ushering it through the membranes of cells in the intestinal tract.24

The silybin-phosphatidylcholine complex is absorbed nearly 5 times better than silymarin alone, and its ultimate concentration to the liver, its target organ, is 10-fold greater than silymarin alone.11-13

In a study of rats exposed to various liver toxins (including dry-cleaning fluid, acetaminophen, and alcohol), silybin plus phosphatidylcholine protected against the telltale rise in plasma levels of liver enzymes (a marker of liver damage), while the same doses of either nutrient alone had no detectable effect.8

A series of human trials has found that this complex also has better results than silymarin or silybin alone, lowering serum levels of liver enzymes and producing clinical improvement in studies of liver cirrhosis and hepatitis caused by alcohol, drugs, and viruses.24

Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis

In about 10% of cases, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease progresses to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a dangerous condition that ultimately produces liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, and even cancer.33,34 Milk thistle shows promise for this extremely serious form of liver disease as well.

In experimental non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, even a crude milk thistle extract reduced severity, lowered blood levels of liver enzymes, and dramatically reduced liver cytokine levels, while increasing liver glutathione (the liver’s protective natural antioxidant).36 Silybin has been shown to completely restore vital liver functions in animals with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, improving insulin sensitivity and markers of oxidative and inflammatory damage.26,37

It also suppressed the transformation of normal liver structural cells into the tough, inelastic tissue characteristic of liver fibrosis and cirrhosis, the end-stage phases of liver disease that follows non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.28

Impact of Liver Diseases on US Population
Impact of Liver Diseases on US Population


United States Data

Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)48

Prevalence- 8.1 to 30 million

Alcoholic Liver Disease49

Annual Deaths- 15,990

Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis50

Annual New Cases- 101,000
Annual Deaths- 31,903

Hepatitis B51

Annual New Cases- 3,374

Hepatitis C52

Annual New Cases- 17,000
Number Living with Chronic Infection-around 3.2 million

Viral Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is a catch-all phrase for infections by several very different viruses that affect the liver, causing liver damage and raising the risk for liver cancer—especially in the case of hepatitis B and C. Both hepatitis B and C can set up chronic, long-lived infection (chronic active hepatitis) that can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis.38

Silymarin treatment in acute viral hepatitis can speed the normalization of liver enzymes in the blood, indicating a regression of active liver damage.39

A group of patients with chronic active hepatitis took 240 mg of silybin combined with phosphatidylcholine, or placebo, twice daily for 7 days.40 Supplemented patients had significant drops in all markers of liver damage, while control patients experienced no changes.

While effective against hepatitis-induced liver damage, oral silymarin produces no reduction in the number of virus particles infecting the body, but studies of silymarin given intravenously reveal a substantial antiviral effect in hepatitis C patients who have not responded to standard antiviral treatment.41

The characteristic yellowish skin of hepatitis victims is the result of high levels of bilirubin, a liver-produced substance normally excreted in stool. But patients receiving oral silymarin for hepatitis (regardless of which virus type) had earlier improvement in both skin coloration and clinical markers of liver damage compared to control patients.42



Milk thistle extracts have been shown to benefit cirrhosis, the end-stage result of liver damage. Cirrhosis can result from multiple causes, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, viral hepatitis, and many toxins.43 In other words, cirrhosis doesn’t represent a single diagnosis, but a largely preventable progression of the oxidation and inflammation produced by all those other causes.

Unfortunately, prevention has so far eluded most medical interventions. As a result, those with cirrhosis are faced with either a slow and uncomfortable death, or a liver transplant, which is costly, dangerous, and not available to everyone.

Fortunately, milk thistle extracts are showing considerable promise in this desperate situation. One early study found that in people with alcohol-induced cirrhosis, those taking silymarin survived longer than control subjects.44 A later study confirmed that finding, with 58% of silymarin-treated patients surviving longer than 4 years, compared with just 39% of the placebo group.45

Even when liver disease has reached the stage of cirrhosis, silymarin treatment can normalize elevated liver enzymes in the blood, indicating that it has slowed the progression of liver damage.46 Proof of this comes from a study in an extremely challenging population: alcoholic diabetics with cirrhosis. In that group, silymarin treatment, 600 mg/day, reduced markers of cell membrane oxidation and improved insulin resistance.3 In fact, silymarin recipients had less overproduction of their own insulin, and required less insulin by injection, compared with control patients.3 The early stages of type II diabetes are characterized by excess pancreatic secretion of insulin to suppress elevated glucose. As type II diabetes progresses, the pancreas loses its ability to produce enough insulin and some patients require insulin injections. A therapy that reduces the amount of insulin needed by injection, or its excess production in the pancreas is considered beneficial.