No evidence supporting or refuting milk thistle for alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum (L) Gaertneri) extracts have been used as medical remedies since the time of ancient Greece. Alcohol and hepatotoxic viruses are the major causes of liver diseases. Several trials have studied the effects of milk thistle for patients with liver diseases. This systematic review could not demonstrate significant effects of milk thistle on mortality or complications of liver diseases in patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C liver diseases combining all trials or high-quality trials. Low-quality trials suggested beneficial effects. High-quality randomised clinical trials on milk thistle versus placebo are needed.

Authors' conclusions: 

Our results question the beneficial effects of milk thistle for patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases and highlight the lack of high-quality evidence to support this intervention. Adequately conducted and reported randomised clinical trials on milk thistle versus placebo are needed.

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Background: 

Alcohol and hepatotoxic viruses cause the majority of liver diseases. Randomised clinical trials have assessed whether extracts of milk thistle, Silybum marianum (L) Gaertneri, have any effect in patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases.

Objectives: 

To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of milk thistle or milk thistle constituents versus placebo or no intervention in patients with alcoholic liver disease and/or viral liver diseases (hepatitis B and hepatitis C).

Search strategy: 

TheCochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Controlled Trials Register, The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE, and full text searches were combined (December 2003). Manufacturers and researchers in the field were contacted.

Selection criteria: 

Only randomised clinical trials in patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases (acute and chronic) were included. Interventions encompassed milk thistle at any dose or duration versus placebo or no intervention. The trials could be double blind, single blind, or unblinded. The trials could be unpublished or published and no language limitations were applied.

Data collection and analysis: 

The primary outcome measure was mortality. Binary outcomes are reported as relative risks (RR) with 95% confidence interval (CI). Subgroup analyses were performed with regard to methodological quality.

Main results: 

Thirteen randomised clinical trials assessed milk thistle in 915 patients with alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases. The methodological quality was low: only 23% of the trials reported adequate allocation concealment and only 46% were considered adequately double-blinded. Milk thistle versus placebo or no intervention had no significant effect on mortality (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.53 to 1.15), complications of liver disease (RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.83 to 1.09), or liver histology. Liver-related mortality was significantly reduced by milk thistle in all trials (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.88), but not in high-quality trials (RR 0.57, 95% CI 0.28 to 1.19). Milk thistle was not associated with a significantly increased risk of adverse events (RR 0.83, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.50).

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