Your liver carries out essential functions that help to keep you healthy, including producing and storing energy, making blood proteins, manufacturing some hormones, helping digest fats and cleaning your blood of toxins and drugs. If your liver becomes injured or diseased, this may cause serious, potentially life-threatening illness. Milk thistle and alpha-lipoic acid are two natural remedies that help support liver function and may be beneficial when taken together. Talk to your doctor to decide whether one or both might be appropriate for you.
The milk thistle plant, or Silybum marianum, has been part of traditional herbal medicine for thousands of years. It contains a group of natural flavonoids, collectively called silymarin, that is largely responsible for its medicinal properties. Silymarin stabilizes membranes of liver cells, excluding toxins and other potentially harmful agents from the cells. It also boosts protein synthesis by liver cells, helping them multiply to replace damaged or dying cells and supporting liver regeneration. Silymarin also helps to clear toxins from the liver by preventing their recirculation through the organ. A substantial amount of laboratory and clinical research supports the positive effects of silymarin on the liver, including a comprehensive review published in the German journal "Forschende Komplementarmedizin" in 2006 that concluded that milk thistle is a useful treatment for treating and reversing liver damage.
Alpha-lipoic acid is a natural compound found in some foods, including red meat, organ meats and yeast. Your body also manufactures alpha-lipoic acid as needed and uses it to help convert glucose in your blood into energy. Alpha-lipoic acid is also a powerful antioxidant that removes free radicals from your body. Free radicals are metabolic byproducts or environmental toxins that might harm your cells by damaging membranes, DNA or other components. Unlike most other antioxidants, alpha-lipoic acid is able to dissolve in both water and fats, making it able to affect all parts of your body.
Alpha-lipoic acid has a number of beneficial actions in your body. It lowers blood sugar, helping you to reduce your risk for diabetes or improve your health if you are diabetic. Because it can pass into the brain, it may also protect you from stroke-related brain damage and other neurological problems. Its antioxidant activity may also protect your organs, including your liver, from cellular damage caused by toxins and other harmful compounds, and it may increase your resistance to DNA damage that can cause cancer.
Milk thistle and alpha lipoic acid appear to use different mechanisms to protect your liver and other organs from damage and may therefore be beneficial when taken together. In a German clinical study published in "Medizinische Klinik" in 1999, silymarin, alpha-lipoic acid and selenium were combined to treat hepatitis in three human subjects. The results were very positive, leading the authors to suggest that this combination therapy is a good therapeutic approach.
Milk thistle and alpha-lipoic acid are available as supplements from health food stores. Both are considered generally safe, although alpha-lipoic acid may lower blood sugar and interact with diabetes medicines, and milk thistle may interfere with several prescription medications. Discuss both supplements in detail with your doctor before adding one or both to your regimen.