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Milk Thistle for Atopic Dermatitis
Milk thistle is a medicinal herb known for its ability to protect the liver from damage as well as improve liver function. Therefore, it is an essential herb for detoxifying the body. So, how does it help with atopic eczema? Studies show that reducing the amount of toxins in the body can help relieve the symptoms of eczema. Therefore, milk thistle can indirectly improve eczema. Read on to learn about the link between the liver and the skin and how it involves the gut. Find out how the active ingredients of milk thistle can also directly improve skin health and how they should be used in the treatment of eczema.
by Brad Chase
Milk thistle is a group of thistle plants belonging to the daisy family. The most popular member of this thistle family is Silybum marianum, a plant native to Europe and Asia but now grown all over the world.
Although milk thistle can be eaten as food, it is more commonly known as an herb for protecting the liver.
As food, almost every part of milk thistle can be eaten as substitutes for vegetables such as artichoke and spinach. On the other hand, only the ripe seeds of the plant is used as a traditional remedy.
The active ingredient of the seed extract of milk thistle is known as silymarin. Besides silymarin, milk thistle extract also contains fatty acids.
Silymarin itself is not one compound but rather a complex of related phenolic compounds made out of flavonoids and lignans.
A commonly used fraction of silymarin is silibin. It contains only silybin A and silybin B in equal amounts.
Most studies investigating the medicinal properties of milk thistle use its silymarin extract. The usual doses used in these clinical trials are between 400 mg and 500 mg per day. At such doses, milk thistle extract is safe and well-tolerated.
However, doses as high as 1200 mg per day have been studied for the treatment of liver hepatitis.
Because of its protective effect on the liver, most of the medicinal uses of milk thistle involve its ability to detoxify the liver and preserve its functions.
Besides its positive effects on the liver, milk thistle is also known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The herb has also been studied for its ability to lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes and also for its anti-tumor effects in the treatment of breast, pancreas and cervical cancers.
The key to understanding the benefits of milk thistle for the skin and for treating skin diseases such as acne and eczema is first understanding its positive effects on the liver.
The 4 ways by which milk thistle protect the liver and help detoxify the body are discussed below.
The active ingredients of milk thistle have been shown to alter the membranes of liver cells. Basically, they stabilize these cells and prevent toxins from destroying them and entering liver cells.
Therefore, milk thistle guards liver cells and prevents toxins from getting inside these cells. This allows the liver to function well. Because the liver can easily be overwhelmed with toxins before it clears them away, milk thistle serves as a regulator of the amount of toxins being handled by the liver.
This means that milk thistle slows down the rate at which toxins are absorbed into the liver thereby allowing ample time for the liver to excrete the toxins it is currently handling.
A clear demonstration of this property of milk thistle involved a review of over 200 cases of death cap mushroom poisoning. The review showed that the addition of the silybin (to penicillin) in the form of milk thistle extract increased the rate of survival among those poisoned by the mushroom.
In fact, the study data showed that the better results were obtained by giving silybin as early as possible.
Clearly, the active ingredients of milk thistle prevented liver cells from damage, supported liver functions and allowed the liver to clear away the mushroom toxin before it can be overwhelmed.
The antioxidant property of milk thistle is well established. As an antioxidant, milk thistle can help neutralize harmful free radicals in the body. This protects the liver from oxidative damage.
However, the antioxidant property of milk thistle extends beyond the liver. This herb can similarly prevent oxidative damage to other organs such as the gut and skin.
Part of the antioxidant effect of milk thistle is its ability to increase the levels of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase and glutathione. Studies show that silymarin can raise the level of superoxide dismutase in the liver by 50%.
Outside the liver, silymarin also raises the level of this antioxidant enzyme in red and white blood cells.
Raising the level of antioxidant enzymes helps neutralize free radicals that cause damage to various organs including the liver.
Antioxidant enzymes are not the only enzymes stimulated by milk thistle. Studies also indicate that this herb can increase the activities of important liver enzymes such as alanine transaminase and aspartate transaminase.
In one study, 30 days of taking milk thistle extract significantly increased liver function in a group of workers who experienced long-term exposure to industrial chemicals.
Therefore, the combined effect of milk thistle on liver enzymes is to improve the liver’s ability to properly remove toxins from the body.
Milk thistle can help repair damaged liver cells as well as promote the generation of new liver cells.
This means that milk thistle heals liver cells even after they are damaged by toxins and harmful free radicals. It can also help replace the liver cells that are destroyed.
To replace lost liver cells, milk thistle promotes protein synthesis. Specifically, studies show that sibylin is responsible for this increase in protein synthesis. It stimulates RNA polymerase I, an enzyme vital to the transcription of DNA and the production of proteins.
The proteins produced from this stimulation can be used to make new liver cells as well as enzymes.
In one study, sibylin increased protein synthesis by 25%.
The combined effect of liver cell repair and generation is responsible for the efficacy of milk thistle in the treatment of chronic liver diseases such as cirrhosis and hepatitis.
By improving liver function, milk thistle can help treat skin diseases like eczema.
This is because the liver and the skin are the major clearing houses for toxins in the body. Therefore, when the liver is damaged and cannot properly remove toxins from the body, most of those toxins are pushed out though the skin.
On their way out, these toxins damage the lower layers of the skin and create the ideal growth environment for pathogens to invade the skin. This creates a cycle of infection and inflammation that results in the dermatological symptoms of eczema such as itching, dry skin and lesions.
The buildup of toxins in the body can also affect other organs of the body and general metabolism.
Besides making the skin porous and open to pathogens and toxins, liver damage can also affect the gastrointestinal tract.
Damage to the gut mucosa can lead to leaky gut syndrome and even higher levels of toxins in the blood as the intestinal barrier breaks down and fails to keep out foreign substances such as pathogens, toxins and undigested food.
Leaky gut syndrome will also end up triggering skin diseases such as eczema.
Milk thistle will not only stop and reverse liver damage but it can also reduce damage to the gut and skin through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
As an antioxidant, milk thistle can reduce the oxidative damage that pathogens cause in the deep layers of the skin. Through its anti-inflammatory effect, milk thistle can reduce local inflammation in the skin as well as in the gut.
By lowering inflammation in the body, milk thistle improves immune system and stops the body from releasing more pro-inflammatory cytokines that do more harm than good.
It is possible that the significant fatty acid content of milk thistle is responsible for this anti-inflammatory effect. Studies have shown that essential fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acids can relieve inflammation and are useful in the treatment of eczema.
In addition, milk thistle has a demulcent property. Therefore, it can hydrate, soothe and lubricate mucosal surfaces by increasing the production of natural lubricants such as mucous in the gastrointestinal tract and sebum in the skin.
Increased lubrication washes away some pathogen, toxins and irritants from the gut mucosa and the skin.
Milk thistle extract is available in multiple dosage forms. One common form is milk thistle capsules. Each capsule usually hold 120 – 140 mg. The herb is also available in ground form for preparing medicinal tea.
However, some users complain that the capsule and the tea form are not as effective as the liquid forms.
Because silymarin is only partially soluble in water, milk thistle teas may not provide sufficient amounts of the active ingredient to produce significant relief from eczema.
Liquid forms of milk thistle extract include tinctures and liquid extracts. These dosage forms make silymarin more bioavailable because it is readily absorbed in liquid form.
Most milk thistle extract products are standardized to contain 70 – 80% silymarin. In the treatment of eczema, 200 mg of such standardized milk thistle extract should be taken 2 – 3 times daily.
While some health experts recommend milk thistle extract because they believe that it produces a more balanced effect than silymarin supplements, there are other experts who recommend silymarin preparations for treating eczema instead of milk thistle extract.
Because silymarin is the major active phytochemical in milk thistle, silymarin preparations may produce better results at lower doses.
For example, a complex made of silymarin and phosphatidylcholine was shown to be the most effective form of the active ingredient.
When bound to phosphatidylcholine, silymarin is better absorbed and more readily bioavailable than silymarin from milk thistle extract. Since phosphatidylcholine is a component of cell membranes, it serves as the perfect carrier molecule to deliver silymarin to liver cells.
Therefore, the silymarin phosphatidylcholine complex not only cross the gastrointestinal barrier more easily but it alters liver cell membranes more readily and, therefore, performs better at keeping toxins from entering liver cells.
The recommended dose of silymarin phosphatidylcholine is 100 - 200 mg taken 2 times daily.
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