Q: Dear Dr. Mao, Is milk thistle effective for treating hepatitis?
A: Milk thistle may be useful as a supportive treatment for chronic hepatitis.
The most important ingredient of milk thistle appears to be silymarin (actually a set of four related substances), which appears to possess a wide variety of liver-protective benefits. It is one of the few herbs that have no real equivalent among standard medications.
In 1986 an oral extract of milk thistle standardized to 70% silymarin content was approved as a treatment for “toxic liver damage; also the supportive treatment of chronic inflammatory liver diseases and hepatic cirrhosis.” The herb is widely used in chronic viral hepatitis as well as alcoholic fatty liver, liver cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, chemical-induced liver toxicity, and abnormal liver enzymes of unknown cause.
Studies of people with chronic hepatitis have shown significant improvement in symptoms such as fatigue, reduced appetite, and abdominal discomfort. However, larger research trials need to be performed before milk thistle can be called a proven treatment for chronic hepatitis. Milk thistle is probably not helpful during the initial acute hepatitis infection.