July 18, 2012
New research has found that a popular alternative therapy may not offer any improvement for people with chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Studies suggest up to one-third of people with HCV have tried milk thistle extract, or silymarin, an antioxidant sold over-the-counter as a dietary supplement. However, it proved no better than a placebo at easing signs of the disease in a new study.
Researchers randomly assigned 154 people with chronic HCV who did not respond to standard prescription therapies into one of three groups: 420 milligrams silymarin; 700 milligrams silymarin; or placebo. All groups were to take two doses three times a day for almost half a year.
At the beginning of the study and at its end, researchers measured liver enzyme levels in the patients' blood to see how well the liver was working. After 24 weeks, just six people saw their enzyme levels return to normal or decline enough to suggest significant improvement: two patients each in both silymarin groups and two in the placebo group.
"Taking [silymarin] would be unlikely to have any benefit" for patients who failed on traditional HCV therapy, said Dr. Michael Fried, lead study author, of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Focusing on keeping a healthy lifestyle to try to minimize liver damage, that's probably more important than taking these supplements."
"Avoiding things like alcohol and maintaining your ideal body weight will go a long way toward maintaining liver health in people with hepatitis C," Fried said. "It's important to stress that there are a lot of advances in hepatitis C [treatment] for people who previously didn't respond to interferon-based medication."
[PNU editor's note: The full study, "Effect of Silymarin (Milk Thistle) on Liver Disease in Patients with Chronic Hepatitis C Unsuccessfully Treated with Interferon Therapy," appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association (2012;308(3):274-282).]