Life Extension Magazine®

Milk thistle flowers harvested for extracts that can help normalize elevated liver enzymes

A Boost On Milk Thistle To Protect Your Liver

Multiple studies confirm that milk thistle provides potent protection against liver damage and helps normalize elevated liver enzymes. Seeking to deliver more of milk thistle’s liver protective compounds, formulators have developed an innovative method that transports a 10-fold greater concentration of active milk thistle compounds to the liver for optimal health and function.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr. Gary Gonzalez, MD, in May 2022. Written by: Julian Warshovsky.

Unprecedented Liver Protection!

The liver is responsible for more than 500 vital life functions.1

Few people realize how critical liver function is to all aspects of health.1

Our liver works tirelessly as a purification plant to eliminate cellular waste products such as ammonia, as well as environmental toxins like heavy metals, pollutants, and drugs.1

Just as important, our liver helps regulate glucose/cholesterol blood levels, breaks down fats in our digestive tract, regulates blood clotting and converts foods into forms easier to use for the rest of the body. Our liver also helps detoxify dietary carcinogens.1

Disorders ranging from cirrhosis to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and even cancer can increase oxidative stress in the liver resulting in liver damage and impairment of function.2-6

For more than 2,000 years, milk thistle has been used to treat liver as well as gall bladder dysfunction.7 Studies confirm that milk thistle can protect liver function, prevent liver damage, and normalize elevated liver enzyme levels.8-10

Specific compounds within milk thistle are responsible for its potent liver-protecting benefits.11 The exciting news is that, researchers have discovered a way to make milk thistle far more effective.

In recent developments, scientists have created a method to provide close to five times more of milk thistle’s bioactive compound into your bloodstream.12

As a result of this enhancement, you can now get up to 10 times more benefit directly to your liver from a single dose of milk thistle extract. The result is unprecedented protection for an aging liver.13,14

The Key to Unlocking Milk Thistle’s Benefits

The Key to Unlocking Milk Thistle’s Benefits  

Extracts from the milk thistle (Silybum marianum) have been used for centuries for their preventive and curative properties for liver disease.7,9 One of the most beneficial milk thistle components responsible for these protective effects is called silymarin.9,11

A potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, silymarin helps fight the root causes of liver disease.15-19 Further research has identified a molecule called silybin as being the most active component in silymarin.9,20

As beneficial as milk thistle is, there’s one issue keeping it from reaching its fullest potential: silybin has poor bioavailability, meaning it’s difficult for your body to absorb.12-14,21,22

But scientists have now developed a novel way to overcome silybin’s poor bioavailability. The solution is to combine silybin with a nutrient called phosphatidylcholine.23

As a major component of cell membranes, phosphatidylcholine facilitates transport across the cells lining the intestines, making it an ideal “carrier molecule” for silybin.21-23

Close to 5 Times Better Absorption!

When silybin is combined with phosphatidylcholine, it is absorbed nearly 5 times better than silymarin alone, and its concentration to the liver is 10-fold greater than silymarin alone.12-14

In a study of rats exposed to various liver toxins, the combination of 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

Human studies also demonstrated that this complex 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.22

Reverse Alcohol-Induced Liver Damage

You likely already know that large amounts of alcohol impose extreme oxidative stress on liver tissue,2,19 but what you might not know is that milk thistle compounds have the potential to attenuate and even reverse alcohol-induced liver damage.2,19,22

In animal studies, acute alcohol administration produced a number of destructive effects in the liver, including prominent accumulations of fat in liver cells, small areas of dead tissue (necrosis), a rise in liver enzymes in the blood, a reduction in glutathione (the main intracellular antioxidant), and an increase in levels of the destructive cytokine TNF-alpha. Amazingly, supplementing with silymarin prevented all of these adverse alcohol-induced changes.19

And one dramatic human study demonstrated just how powerfully silymarin protects liver activity and improves liver function in alcoholic patients.24 In a double-blind, clinical trial of 36 people with chronic alcoholic liver disease, patients took either silymarin or placebo every day for six months.24 At baseline, all patients had elevated liver enzymes and other markers of liver damage in their blood; they also had biopsy-proven tissue damage.

Following treatment, however, all of the markers of liver damage had normalized in the silymarin group (with only minimal changes among placebo recipients).24 Even better, subsequent biopsies indicated reversal of the disease process by revealing cellular-level improvement in the silymarin group, but no changes in the placebo patients.

Milk Thistle Outperforms Mainstream Treatment

Although non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common cause of chronic liver disease in industrialized nations, mainstream medicine has little to offer for those suffering from this disease.25,26 Fortunately, silymarin holds out substantial promise.4,27

In a 2012 study, researchers compared silymarin (140 mg/day) with insulin sensitizing drugs like metformin and pioglitazone.27 All three treatments produced improvements in fasting blood sugar, lipid profiles, insulin levels, and insulin resistance, along with decreases in blood levels of liver enzymes. However, the silymarin group experienced the greatest decrease in liver enzymes, indicating greater protection against liver damage.27

As promising as silybin is on its own, the increased bioavailability of silybin in combination with phosphatidylcholine represents a major step forward in managing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. One early study of patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease showed significant reductions in plasma markers of liver fibrosis and significant improvements in insulin resistance, using a combination of silybin, vitamin E, and phospholipids.28

A more recent, larger trial of a unique combination of silybin with phosphatidylcholine and vitamin E demonstrated significant improvements in liver enzymes, insulin resistance, and the appearance of liver tissue on biopsy (none of which were seen in placebo recipients).10

Restore Vital Liver Function

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.29,30

Silybin has been shown to restore vital liver functions in animals with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, improving insulin sensitivity and markers of oxidative and inflammatory damage.31,32

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.33

Reverse Active Liver Damage

Reverse Active Liver Damage

Viral hepatitis is a catch-all phrase for infections (such as hepatitis B and C) that can cause liver damage and raise the risk for liver cancer. Both hepatitis B and C can set up chronic infection (chronic active hepatitis) that can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis.34

Silymarin treatment in acute viral hepatitis can speed the normalization of liver enzymes in the blood, indicating a regression of active liver damage.35

A group of patients with chronic active hepatitis took 240 mg of silybin combined with phosphatidylcholine, or placebo, twice daily for 7 days.36 The patients taking silybin had significant drops in all markers of liver damage, while control patients experienced no changes.36

While effective against hepatitis-induced liver damage, oral silymarin produces no reduction in the number of viral particles infecting the body, but studies of silymarin given intravenously reveal a substantial antiviral effect in patients who have not responded to standard IV antiviral treatment.35,37

Increased Survival Rates!

Those with cirrhosis, the end-stage result of liver damage, are faced with two options: a slow and uncomfortable death or a liver transplant.38 Fortunately, milk thistle extracts have been found to increase the survival rate of this deadly condition.

One study found that in people with alcohol-induced cirrhosis, those taking silymarin survived longer than control subjects.39 A later study confirmed that finding, with 58% of silymarin-treated patients surviving longer than 4 years, compared with 39% of the placebo group.40

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.41


Milk thistle extract has now been proven to lessen and, in some cases, reverse liver damage. Studies have shown that it can benefit multiple liver disorders, including alcohol-induced liver damage, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, viral infections, and cirrhosis.2,4,19,22,26,30,31,34,38-40

Scientists have uncovered specific compounds in milk thistle responsible for its liver-promoting benefits—and in the process have uncovered a way to substantially increase their absorption and bioavailability.13,14 This breakthrough improves the delivery of the benefits of milk thistle extracts for liver health.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at 1-866-864-3027.

Editor's Note

Science continues to evolve, and new research is published daily. As such, we have a more recent article on this topic: Milk Thistle Promotes Liver Detoxification


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