While chemotherapy is a critical component of cancer treatment for many patients, the medications are very powerful and often cause side effects, including liver damage. Currently there is no remedy for treating liver toxicity. However, researchers have found that the herb Milk Thistle may prevent or reduce chemotherapy-induced liver damage.

The Liver

The liver is a powerful organ, involved in more than 400 biological functions. It converts food into nutrients, stores reserves of fats, sugar, iron and vitamins, and makes proteins that helps blood clot. The liver protects our body by removing or neutralizing toxins.

Chemotherapy can cause inflammation in the liver. If this happens, the patient's physician must lower the dose of chemo medications, or stop it all together, compromising the patient's cancer treatment.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle has been used for centuries to treat liver problems and is still used today to treat cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis, and gall bladder disorders.

There are limited studies on the use of milk thistle in treating liver damage caused by chemotherapy, but the initial results looks promising. The December 2009 issue of the journal Cancer reported results from a study of milk thistle in children who had a specific type of leukemia. The children who received milk thistle had lower levels of liver enzymes that indicate inflammation than those who didn't. Physicians were able to maintain the dose of chemotherapy in the children who took milk thistle.

When scientists combine milk thistle with leukemia cells in the lab, it does not appear to interfere with the cancer-fighting properties of chemotherapy. Fortunately, the herb also causes few side effects, although it may act as a laxative in some people, or cause nausea, heartburn and stomach upset. At high doses, some people have an allergic reaction to milk thistle.

There's more reason to be optimistic about milk thistle. Silibinin, the other major active ingredient, also demonstrates anti-cancer properties in lab studies, reducing the growth of cancer cells in breast, cervical and prostate cancers. Silibinin is an antioxidant, which protects cells from damage.

To date, most studies with milk thistle have been in the lab, although scientists have conducted clinical trials of milk thistle in treating hepatitis or liver cirrhosis. Since milk thistle is a dietary supplement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve or regulate it. You can take milk thistle in capsule or tablet form.