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Milk thistle found to stimulate growth of new liver cells
It has been called the 'silent epidemic.' This virus can take from 10 to 30 years to show outward symptoms. Outside the obvious high-risk groups, it is often first detected as part of life insurance physicals. By the time hepatitis C is discovered, cirrhosis and liver failure can be imminent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.8 percent of the American population is infected. There is no vaccination, only treatment with Interferon, which is physically difficult, quite expensive and not always effective.
The search for a less costly treatment for hepatitis C has, for better or worse, led many sufferers back to herbal supplements. Throughout history one plant has long been known for 'carrying off bile.'
This is first century herbal language for restoring liver function. In past times the primary killer of livers were wild mushrooms, which even today remain so toxic that modern medicine has few options for treating poisonings.
The one plant traditionally used as an antidote to the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is milk thistle. This wayside weed, Silybum marianum, can be found naturalized through much of America. A native of the Mediterranean, it enjoys warmer dry climates, but like most thistles, it is remarkably tough and adaptable.
Science has isolated the active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, which is believed to stimulate the growth of new liver cells. It is commercially extracted from the seed, but the chemical is present in other parts of the plant, too. A number of studies related to chronic liver disease treated with silymarin have produced mixed results. Although the statistics do not support its efficacy, many hepatitis sufferers continue to hope that milk thistle supplements, widely sold in capsule form, are beneficial.
Milk thistle relatives fall under a more well-known thistle genus Carduus. They are first-class colonizers that hail from as far away as Africa and Asia. Their presence has become a sign of ill-kept ground. This is in part because sharply thorned leaves makes grazing animals steer clear of them. An indolent farmer is likely to ignore a small colony, giving it time to infest an entire pasture in a handful of seasons. Many exotic thistles have naturalized in America. This includes the artichoke thistle, a wild form of the cultivated vegetable, globe artichoke. Artichoke thistle thrives in coastal grassland communities of California.
Thistle is a weed often spread by livestock or feed. Thistles harvested with hay can travel a long way before being released from the bale at a new destination. Grain bags, as well as the animals themselves, help thistle travel whenever they are sold and transported. This explains why thistles can often be imported into gardens with unsterilized or insufficiently composted manures.
When introduced to a new location, the seed quickly germinates. In farms and gardens, a single parent plant can quickly produce countless progeny in their first year. This speed of infestation caused great alarm in early 20th century Australia, where the weeds, introduced from Europe, ran rampant. Eventually an act of parliament was required to force land owners to promptly control thistles before they get out of hand.
Milk thistle cousins, the artichokes and globe thistle, make somewhat better candidates for gardens. But they, too, can naturalize and become weeds. The edible artichoke flower bud resembles that of milk thistle but is much larger.
In the garden, let an artichoke bud bloom, and it becomes a giant purple thistle flower. As the plants grow tall, they develop a thick stalk. In Italy, the interior flesh of the thistle stalk is called cardoon, a delicacy named for their genus, Caruus.
Thistles are a remarkable story of survival and colonization. They also tell a tale of invasive exotics that naturalize too easily in America. The plants pepper the herbals back to the time of Dioscorides for their medicinal values. In various forms, the stems, flowers and leaves have been valuable food.
An English herbalist once said of rediscovered old thistles, romantically if not scientifically, "It is a friend to the liver and blood ... but as the world decays, so doth the use of good old things and others, more delicate and less virtuous brought in."