What Are the Medical Uses of Silibinin?

M. Haskins

Silibinin, or silybin, is a compound extracted from the seeds of the herb milk thistle. Various milk thistle remedies have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat conditions like liver problems, different types of inflammation, and snake bites. In scientific research, various medical uses of silibinin have been studied, for example as a treatment to prevent liver damage when a patient has ingested toxic mushrooms, as a treatment for other liver problems, as well as a treatment for some forms of cancer, including prostate and lung cancer. Some studies indicate that this compound can also be used as a type 2 diabetes treatment, helping with blood sugar control. Silibinin in its pure form is toxic in high doses, but the smaller doses used for medical purposes have been shown to be safe.

Silibinin has been used to prevent liver damage from mushroom poisoning.
Silibinin has been used to prevent liver damage from mushroom poisoning.

Milk thistle's scientific name is Silybum marianum, but it is also known under a wide variety of other names, including blessed milk thistle, Marian thistle, and variegated thistle. It is native to Asia and Europe, but now grows in many places across the world. This plant was commonly grown in the herb gardens of medieval monasteries, and is an ancient herbal remedy for various ailments, especially liver and gallbladder problems. Scientists studying the medical uses of milk thistle use an extract from the herb called silymarin which contains various compounds. Studies have shown that silibinin is the most potent and medically active compound in silymarin.

Silibinin is found in the seeds of the milk thistle plant.
Silibinin is found in the seeds of the milk thistle plant.

In scientific studies, silibinin has been administered by injection as an antidote in cases of mushroom poisoning. It has been shown to prevent damage to the liver caused by mushrooms such as death caps and amanitas. Other studies have focused on the medical uses of this compound when treating cancer. Studies on animals indicate that the effect of silibinin includes inhibiting the growth of cancer tumors and cells, and that it can also protect the kidneys and liver from damage when a patient is under going chemotherapy. Other beneficial effects still being researched include this compound's ability to lower bad cholesterol and slow the growth of gallstones.

Some studies indicate that silibinin can help manage type 2 diabetes by stabilizing blood sugar levels. Scientists believe that the ability of this compound to protect the liver from toxins and inflammation helps improve liver function, in turn leading to improved maintenance of normal blood sugar levels. Silibinin also has antioxidant properties, and like other antioxidants, can prevent or inhibit certain forms of cell damage.

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