Some Milk Thistle or Licorice Root for Your Liver?
Nov. 16, 1999 (Bethesda, Md.) - As evinced by the turnout at a recent
National Institutes of Health conference examining alternative or
nontraditional medicine treatments for liver disease -- and reports from
researchers from around the world -- herbal therapies are a runaway success
with consumers who are desperate to find a remedy. The problem is that
scientists don?t know enough yet to say whether the increasingly popular herbal
treatments -- such as milk thistle and licorice root -- actually work, or
According to survey findings presented at the meeting, more than 40% of
patients at liver disease clinics were also using such alternative remedies.
"There's a need for physicians to be aware of the fact that people are
using these medicines, [and] for patients to be aware that they should tell
their physicians," Bruce Bacon, MD, tells WebMD. Bacon, a professor of
internal medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine and an organizer
of the meeting, adds, "There really isn't all that much known about whether
or not what they're taking is effective or potentially harmful."
Conventional treatment of liver disease "is frequently difficult and
frustrating," Bacon says, and effective therapies have only emerged in the
past 10 years. Alcoholism-related liver disease, for example, is the leading
cause of cirrhosis and liver-related deaths, but no therapy for it has been
approved by the FDA.
Hepatitis patients have also taken a strong interest in alternative
therapies. More than 2% of the U.S. population is estimated to have hepatitis
C, a leading cause of liver disease and the chief reason for liver transplants.
But the viral disease has no cure, and standard therapy is effective in only a
small percentage of patients.
While several herbs and herbal preparations appear promising, clinical data
concerning their roles in treating liver disease are relatively scanty. It is
known, however, that some herbs are strongly toxic to the liver.
Milk thistle (silymarin), a commonly used alternative medication for liver
problems, is well established as liver-protective, says Peter Ferenci, MD, a
professor of medicine at the University of Vienna, Austria. As a treatment for
liver disease, however, he says that its "clinical benefits ... are
difficult to establish." Ferenci pointed out that no one has conducted
scientifically sound trials using the milk thistle in patients who have
developed acute liver disease from drugs, environmental toxins or ethanol or
A licorice root extract called glycyrrhizin has also shown promise as a
possible remedy for chronic hepatitis C and liver cancer, says University of
California, Davis, researcher Mark Zern, MD. But how it works is unclear, Zern
says, and its long-term benefits have not been tested.
Commenting on both therapies, Bacon tells WebMD, "Those are relatively
harmless medicines, but there's very little data showing that they're