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Milk Thistle (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 12/23/2013

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General Information

The botanical name for milk thistle is Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. Milk thistle is also referred to as holy thistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, St. Mary thistle, wild artichoke, Mariendistel (German), and Chardon-Marie (French). The plant is indigenous to Europe but can also be found in the United States and South America. Traditionally, the leaves have been used in salads, and the fruit of the flower has been roasted as a coffee substitute. The seeds of milk thistle are the medicinal parts of the plant.[1] The primary active constituent of milk thistle is silymarin, which is composed of the following isomers: silybin (consisting of silybins A and B), isosilybin (consisting of isosilybins A and B), silychristin, and silydianin. Most supplements are standardized according to their silybin content. Silybin and isosilybin are both mixtures of two diastereomers, silybins A and B and isosilybins A and B, respectively.[2,3] Special formulations of silybin have been developed to enhance the bioavailability of the herbal product; these forms are sold under the names Legalon, silipide, and Siliphos. Because of milk thistle’s lipophilic nature, it is usually administered in capsule or tablet form rather than as an herbal tea. In Europe, silybin is administered intravenously as the only effective antidote for Amanita phalloides (Fr.) Link toxin.[4] Humans exposed to this mushroom toxin develop serious liver failure that ultimately progresses to death.

Several companies distribute milk thistle as a dietary supplement. In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs. Therefore, premarket evaluation and approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are not required unless specific disease prevention or treatment claims are made. Because dietary supplements are not formally reviewed for manufacturing consistency, ingredients may vary considerably from lot to lot; in addition, there is no guarantee that ingredients identified on product labels are present at all or are present in the specified amounts. It is important to note that the FDA has not approved the use of milk thistle as a treatment for cancer patients or patients with any other medical condition.

To conduct clinical drug research in the United States, researchers must file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the FDA. The IND application process is confidential, and IND information can be disclosed only by the applicants. To date, only one investigator has announced holding an IND to study milk thistle as an adjunct cancer treatment.

Despite milk thistle’s long history of being used to treat liver and biliary complaints, it was not until 1968 that silymarin was isolated from the seeds of the plant, and it was proposed that silymarin might be the active ingredient.[5] Silymarin was later determined to be a flavonolignan that is composed of four structurally similar compounds: silybin, isosilybin, silydianin, and silychristin.[2] Researchers have investigated the role that silibinin may play in the treatment of hepatitis and cirrhosis. Most studies have investigated the isolated compound silymarin or its most active isomer silybin, rather than the herbal plant in its whole form.

Silymarin is most well known for its purported effects on the liver. In laboratory studies, silymarin has been found to stabilize cell membranes, thus preventing toxic chemicals from entering the cell.[4,6-8] Laboratory studies have also demonstrated that silymarin stimulates synthesis and activity of enzymes responsible for detoxification pathways and exhibits antioxidant properties.[7-18] Specifically, silymarin has been shown to stimulate the glutathione S-transferase pathway and alter the intracellular concentration of glutathione (a potent antioxidant). Silymarin has also been shown to neutralize a wide range of free radicals.

Laboratory experiments conducted using cancer cell lines have suggested that silibinin enhances the efficacy of cisplatin and doxorubicin against ovarian and breast cancer cells.[19] Silybin appears to have direct anticancer effects against prostate, breast, and ectocervical tumor cells.[20] Silybin may also affect the cell cycle in cancer cells by slowing down cell growth, as demonstrated with prostate cancer cell lines.[21] Laboratory studies using leukemia cell lines found that silybin did not stimulate growth of leukemia cells.[22]

No human clinical trials on milk thistle or silymarin as a cancer treatment or as an adjunctive therapy in individuals with cancer have been published. Most clinical trials have investigated silymarin’s effectiveness in the treatment of patients with hepatitis, cirrhosis, or biliary disorders.[23-32] These studies have employed a wide range of doses (120–560 mg /day) and have yielded conflicting results. Many of the well-designed, large-scale trials have reported a beneficial effect rather than no effect. The most commonly reported adverse effects are a mild laxative effect and gastrointestinal upset.

  1. PDR® for Herbal Medicines™. 2nd ed. Montvale, NJ: Medical Economics, 2000. 

  2. Lee DY, Liu Y: Molecular structure and stereochemistry of silybin A, silybin B, isosilybin A, and isosilybin B, Isolated from Silybum marianum (milk thistle). J Nat Prod 66 (9): 1171-4, 2003.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  3. Napolitano JG, Lankin DC, Graf TN, et al.: HiFSA fingerprinting applied to isomers with near-identical NMR spectra: the silybin/isosilybin case. J Org Chem 78 (7): 2827-39, 2013.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  4. Hruby K, Csomos G, Fuhrmann M, et al.: Chemotherapy of Amanita phalloides poisoning with intravenous silibinin. Hum Toxicol 2 (2): 183-95, 1983.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  5. Wagner H, Hörhammer L, Münster R: [On the chemistry of silymarin (silybin), the active principle of the fruits from Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (Carduus marianus L.)] Arzneimittelforschung 18 (6): 688-96, 1968.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  6. Campos R, Garrido A, Guerra R, et al.: Silybin dihemisuccinate protects against glutathione depletion and lipid peroxidation induced by acetaminophen on rat liver. Planta Med 55 (5): 417-9, 1989.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  7. Farghali H, Kameniková L, Hynie S, et al.: Silymarin effects on intracellular calcuim and cytotoxicity: a study in perfused rat hepatocytes after oxidative stress injury. Pharmacol Res 41 (2): 231-7, 2000.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  8. Lettéron P, Labbe G, Degott C, et al.: Mechanism for the protective effects of silymarin against carbon tetrachloride-induced lipid peroxidation and hepatotoxicity in mice. Evidence that silymarin acts both as an inhibitor of metabolic activation and as a chain-breaking antioxidant. Biochem Pharmacol 39 (12): 2027-34, 1990.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  9. Zhao J, Agarwal R: Tissue distribution of silibinin, the major active constituent of silymarin, in mice and its association with enhancement of phase II enzymes: implications in cancer chemoprevention. Carcinogenesis 20 (11): 2101-8, 1999.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  10. Valenzuela A, Guerra R, Videla LA: Antioxidant properties of the flavonoids silybin and (+)-cyanidanol-3: comparison with butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene. Planta Med (6): 438-40, 1986.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  11. Valenzuela A, Guerra R, Garrido A: Silybin dihemisuccinate protects rat erythrocytes against phenylhydrazine-induced lipid peroxidation and hemolysis. Planta Med 53 (5): 402-5, 1987.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  12. Valenzuela A, Aspillaga M, Vial S, et al.: Selectivity of silymarin on the increase of the glutathione content in different tissues of the rat. Planta Med 55 (5): 420-2, 1989.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  13. Mira ML, Azevedo MS, Manso C: The neutralization of hydroxyl radical by silibin, sorbinil and bendazac. Free Radic Res Commun 4 (2): 125-9, 1987.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  14. Mira L, Silva M, Manso CF: Scavenging of reactive oxygen species by silibinin dihemisuccinate. Biochem Pharmacol 48 (4): 753-9, 1994.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  15. Koch HP, Löffler E: Influence of silymarin and some flavonoids on lipid peroxidation in human platelets. Methods Find Exp Clin Pharmacol 7 (1): 13-8, 1985.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  16. Garrido A, Arancibia C, Campos R, et al.: Acetaminophen does not induce oxidative stress in isolated rat hepatocytes: its probable antioxidant effect is potentiated by the flavonoid silybin. Pharmacol Toxicol 69 (1): 9-12, 1991.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  17. Bosisio E, Benelli C, Pirola O: Effect of the flavanolignans of Silybum marianum L. on lipid peroxidation in rat liver microsomes and freshly isolated hepatocytes. Pharmacol Res 25 (2): 147-54, 1992 Feb-Mar.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  18. Altorjay I, Dalmi L, Sári B, et al.: The effect of silibinin (Legalon) on the the free radical scavenger mechanisms of human erythrocytes in vitro. Acta Physiol Hung 80 (1-4): 375-80, 1992.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  19. Scambia G, De Vincenzo R, Ranelletti FO, et al.: Antiproliferative effect of silybin on gynaecological malignancies: synergism with cisplatin and doxorubicin. Eur J Cancer 32A (5): 877-82, 1996.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  20. Bhatia N, Zhao J, Wolf DM, et al.: Inhibition of human carcinoma cell growth and DNA synthesis by silibinin, an active constituent of milk thistle: comparison with silymarin. Cancer Lett 147 (1-2): 77-84, 1999.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  21. 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 U S A 96 (13): 7490-5, 1999.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  22. Duthie SJ, Johnson W, Dobson VL: The effect of dietary flavonoids on DNA damage (strand breaks and oxidised pyrimdines) and growth in human cells. Mutat Res 390 (1-2): 141-51, 1997.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  23. Vailati A, Aristia L, Sozzé E, et al.: Randomized open study of the dose-effect relationship of a short course of IdB 1016 in patients with viral or alcoholic hepatitis. Fitoterapia 64 (3), 219-28, 1993. 

  24. Salmi HA, Sarna S: Effect of silymarin on chemical, functional, and morphological alterations of the liver. A double-blind controlled study. Scand J Gastroenterol 17 (4): 517-21, 1982.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  25. Parés A, Planas R, Torres M, et al.: Effects of silymarin in alcoholic patients with cirrhosis of the liver: results of a controlled, double-blind, randomized and multicenter trial. J Hepatol 28 (4): 615-21, 1998.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  26. Moscarella S, Giusti A, Marra F, et al.: Therapeutic and antilipoperoxidant effects of silybin-phosphatidylcholine complex in chronic liver disease: preliminary results. Current Therapeutic Research 53 (1): 98-102. 

  27. Marena C, Lampertico M: Preliminary clinical development of silipide: a new complex of silybin in toxic liver disorders. Planta Med 57 (Suppl 2): A124-5, 1991. 

  28. Marcelli R, Bizzoni P, Conte D, et al.: Randomized controlled study of the efficacy and tolerability of a short course of IdB 1016 in the treatment of chronic persistent hepatitis. European Bulletin of Drug Research 1 (3): 131-5, 1992. 

  29. Flisiak R, Prokopowicz D: Effect of misoprostol on the course of viral hepatitis B. Hepatogastroenterology 44 (17): 1419-25, 1997 Sep-Oct.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  30. Ferenci P: [Therapy of chronic hepatitis C] Wien Med Wochenschr 150 (23-24): 481-5, 2000.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  31. Buzzelli G, Moscarella S, Giusti A, et al.: Therapeutic effects of a new silybin complex in chronic active hepatitis (CAH). [Abstract] Hellenic Journal of Gastroenterology 5 (Suppl): A-151, 38, 1992. 

  32. Albrecht M, Frerick H, Kuhn U, et al.: Therapy of toxic liver pathologies with Legalon®. Z Klin Med 47: 87-92, 1992.