Helping the Liver with Milk Thistle

Recently we talked about seizure disorders; as mentioned, one cause of seizures in dogs is liver disease. This is usually seen in young dogs with a congenital malformation of the blood vessels inthe liver (shunt), but it can also occur in adult dogs as a result of injury, infection, or toxic exposure.

The liver is the body’s major organ of detoxification, and it works primarily on things we and our pets eat. All blood leaving the digestive tract passes through the liver before entering the main circulation. This unusual route allows the liver to filter, remove, and metabolize potentially toxic substances. Many pharmaceuticals take advantage of this by delivering drugs in a form that will survive the acidity of the stomach and be metabolized into an active form in the liver.

Many drugs, however, put a major burden on the liver, including prednisone and similar steroids, and–ironically–the primary drugs used to treat seizures.

The other unusual trait of the liver is its regenerative powers. For most organs and major body parts, once they’re injured or removed, that’s the end of the story. Healing–when even possible–consists mainly of scar tissue formation. However, the liver has an amazing ability to regenerate itself. In humans, even as little as 20% of the liver can be transplanted yet still provide the patient with normal liver function. That’s why it pays such big dividends to keep the liver healthy! One way to do that is with the herb Milk Thistle.

What It Is

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a flowering plant in the Aster family. A native of Europe, it has been used since the time of the Roman empire as a liver tonic. It grows wild in many parts of the world, including the Pacific Northwest area of the U.S., where it is considered an invasive weed.

Milk thistle is one of very few herbs widely accepted by conventional science to have significant medicinal value. Today we know the active ingredient of milk thistle seed extract as a flavonoid compound called “silymarin.”  Silymarin, which is itself a combination of several other active compounds, has been extensively studied around the world, and has been shown to be safe and effective in treating a variety of liver diseases and other conditions. It specifically protects the liver against toxins (including some molds such as aflatoxin, drugs, and heavy metals), activates protein synthesis, and stimulates growth of new liver cells to replace those that are dead or damaged. Milk thistle also has strong antioxidant (destroys oxygen free radicals) and anti-inflammatory actions.

What It Does

Silymarin reaches high levels in the bile and liver (it also reaches significant levels in the lungs, pancreas, prostate, and skin). It can be used in the treatment of hepatic lipidosis (a common disease in cats), chronic hepatitis, cholangitis (inflammation of the bile ducts), and pericholangitis (inflammation of the tissue around the bile ducts). It may be useful in preventing or treating gallstones by thinning the bile. Many cats and dogs with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also have inflammation of the liver, bile system, and/or pancreas, and would benefit from supplementation with milk thistle.

Milk thistle can be used as an aid to healing after drug therapy, vaccinations, and infections such as feline distemper or canine parvovirus, as well as a  cancer. It may also help prevent diabetic neuropathy, a common complication of diabetes that causes degeneration of the nerves controlling the hind limbs.

Milk thistle also supports the immune system through its powerful antioxidant, free-radical scavenging action, its ability to preserve the supply of another important antioxidant, glutathione, as well as direct effects on immune cells. Glutathione, which is stored primarily in the liver, naturally declines over time, and depletion of this protein appears to accelerate the aging process.

While it’s not exactly the fountain of youth, milk thistle clearly has wide-ranging positive effects throughout the body. However, before you add this potent herb to your pet’s daily regimen “just in case” it might do some good, herbalists believe milk thistle is best reserved as a treatment for existing disease, rather than being used by itself in a healthy animal.

How to Use

The standard dosage of milk thistle extract is based on a silymarin content of around 80 percent; most supplements contain anywhere from 50-500 milligrams (175 mg is typical). As with many supplements, it’s probably better to buy a milk thistle derivative rather than a silymarin-only or other fractional supplement, since there may be other compounds found in the whole herb that significantly enhance the effects of what science has decided is the main player.

Because of its excellent safety record and lack of adverse drug interactions, when treating a very sick animal with advanced liver disease, up to 200 mg per 10 pounds of body weight of milk thistle extract may be needed. For most purposes, however, one-third to one-half of that dose is more than adequate.

Animals with liver disease may not have much appetite, but it’s easy to open up a capsule, mix the appropriate amount of powdered herb with a little blenderized food or baby food, and feed by syringe. Too high a dose can cause an upset tummy, gas, or mild diarrhea; just give less if this occurs.

Human research studies have shown that it is more effective to administer this herb in three or four small portions over the day than in one large daily dose. A simple dosing schedule of morning, after work, and bedtime works very well. We have several excellent milk thistle products available.

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