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Taken from a spiny plant with a purple flower that stands up like a blow-dried Afro, milk thistle extract is the key ingredient in most of the vitamin-store formulas sold with optimistic names like "7 Day Liver Cleanse" and "Quick Cleanse Kit." Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council, claims that taking silymarin (the name by which potent milk thistle extracts are collectively known) can help rejuvenate an ailing liver. He echoes many herbalists when he says it also acts as a prophylactic against alcohol-related damage and adds that before sitting down for some serious whiskey drinking, he and his friends pop some milk thistle pills.
Boosters say it's good for holiday tweakers too, since staying awake for extended periods of time puts extra stress on your liver. "The longer you stay awake jumping aroundyou're making more metabolic waste than your liver can excrete," says Michael Moore, granddaddy herbalist and author of Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande.
Research has not shown that a healthy person who goes on a binge stands to gain from any supposed liver booster. Still, plenty of people believe that if milk thistle is as beneficial to damaged livers as several studies have found, it must be good for normalif holiday-abusedlivers too.
The trouble is that studies have also offered results that seem to contradict the findings herbalists point to. The cumulative data is hard for scientists to draw conclusions from, in large part because the available studies are difficult to compare, says Dr. Francine Rainone of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.
Rainone conducted a review of relevant liver-and-milk-thistle studies last October. "I have no problem with someone saying silymarin seems to be good for your liver, because that's true and it's safe," she says. "But so far we don't have clear evidence that silymarin improves outcomes in people with chronic liver disease. The animal studies look really, really good. Silymarin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and seems to protect liver cells by changing the cell membranes so that toxins have a harder time entering. I have never seen a study of silymarin for people without chronic disease who drink too much. To say that, if you take it after three weeks of drinking, seems overreaching."
A boring old trip to the green market is the best way to go anyway, according to the purists. Dandelion, an anti-inflammatory often included in commercial liver formulas, is good boiled or made into tea, says Susun Weed, who runs natural healing apprenticeships in Woodstock, New York. Rosemary Gladstar, author of Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life With Energy, Health, and Vitality, suggests you add burdock root and the actual milk thistle plant (as opposed to the pills made from its extract) to your diet.
Then again, you can just do nothing. "If your liver is healthy but you trashed it over the holidays, just drink a Jamba Juice every day for a week and it will heal on its own. Milk thistle is probably most beneficial to people who have more chronic issues," says Adam Seller, director of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine in Oakland, California.
Or it might just heal up without the Jamba Juice.