Milk Thistle Protects Cells FromToxic Chemotherapy Side Effects

Can Herbal Medicine and Chemotherapy work together for the benefit of cancer patients? 

Several studies show that the extract of Milk Thistle seeds (Silybum marianum), particulary the phytochemicals silibinin and silymarin not only protect delicate kidney cells and tubules from damage, but also protect nerve cells from damage and the development of chemotherapy induced nerve pain. Components of Milk Thistle have also been shown to enhance the effects of some chemotherapy agents.  Milk Thistle is one of the great multi-tasking herbs that helps to restore normal function to patients suffering from chemotherapy side effects.

Researchers discovered that kidney damage occurs primarily within one hour after chemotherapy administration with the platinum based drugs cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin which are administered intravenously (IV) for a variety of cancers.  Therefore it is important to give milk thistle extract before chemotherapy is infused. This seems to decrease the high levels of oxidative stress that contribute to kidney cell damage.

Research has also shown that substances that increase our body’s own innate oxidation control may offer further protection. Supplements which increase SOD (super oxide dismutase) within cells include sulphur containing forms of selenium such as selenomethionine and methylselenocysteine.

Silymarin and other components of Milk Thistle may increase our own super antioxidant glutathione.  Both N Acetyl Cysteine and Undenatured Whey protein are known to improve the availability of glutathione as a free radical scavenger within cells. Although we most often think of whey as a source of high quality protein, it is also a source of precursors and greatly enhances the quenching of oxidative stress within cells which is key in reducing the toxic and damaging effects of chemotherapy.

Whey Protein is an outstanding source of high quality concentrated protein so important to patients undergoing chemotherapy which is a very high energy demanding state requiring extra nutrients and extra protein at a time when many patients lose their appetite or feel nauseous and do not want to eat. A protein drink if often an easy and satisfying source of much needed nutrients and calories.

Studies show that when silymarin from milk thistle seeds was administered before platinum chemotherapy there was a marked decrease in kidney cell damage. Remarkably, normal cells were protected and there was no apparent interference with or reduction of effect of the platinum chemotherapy drugs.

Oxidative stress and kidney damage may peak within one hour of drug exposure, the damage continues on until it is quenched by anti-oxidants. Chemotherapy drugs typically exhaust our own innate anti-oxidant systems. This is one reason they kill fast growing cancer cells, but it is also why cells with higher rates of turnover and metabolism such as nerve cells, brain cells, heart muscle, the lining of the digestive tract, hair follicles and kidney tubules are so vulnerable to chemotherapy drug side effects with agents that act on cancer cells by increasing oxidative stress.

Good management in an Integrative Cancer Care plan involves careful selection of  high quality botanical  and nutritional supplements that will mitigate side effects without interfering the therapeutic actions of the cancer treatment while at the same time offering protection from toxicity and damage as well and preserving  normal function.  This will be different with different drugs. Therefore it is important to consult with a health care professional with experience and knowledge of drug-nutrient and drug-herb interactions.

Not all interactions are bad. In fact some drug-herb and drug-nutrient interactions actually may enhance and improve drug efficacy and may even decrease chemo-resistance which is the predicament wherein cancer cells adapt and change so that they are no longer effected by the drugs.  Some cancer cells are so smart that they develop a pump mechanism for moving the toxic drug back outside of the cell!!! This is one reason cancer is so challenging to treat. All the better to find ways to improve treatments and decrease side effects and drug resistance.

Milk Thistle is an herbal medicine that is a multi-tasker and has many effects on cancer physiology as well as its protective effects against kidney damage and loss of kidney function. It is one of the main herbs used to protect the kidneys from the chemotherapy side effects of cisplatin, oxaliplatin and carboplatin. Milk Thistle is well known as an herb that enhances inflammation function and protects liver function. It is therefore a suitable herb to consider for patients undergoing and recovering from exposure to toxic chemicals and drugs.

Patients receiving platinum chemotherapy drugs also experience the side effect of neuropathy or nerve damage and nerve pain, usually in the hands and feet. The damage to nerves is also caused by oxidative stress. Therefore quenching the cascade of damaging electrons and providing nourishment for the restoration of healthy nerve function is essential as chemotherapy induced neuropathy may linger as a long term side effect.

L-Carnitine, L-Glutamine, Lipoic Acid, N-Acetyl-Cysteine as well as Omega 3 Fatty Acids are a good strategy for restoring healthy nerve function after chemotherapy. Both Acupuncture as well as Milk thistle has also been traditionally used to normalize liver dysfunction and associated nausea side effects of chemotherapy.

Acupuncture is also a useful supportive therapy for patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery and suffering from side effects of hormonal treatments.

Learning to choose foods rich in antioxidants will give you even more protection on a daily basis. All of the recipes on our site are rich in plant antioxidants.  Additionally many herbal medicines are particularly concentrated in these protective phytochemicals. Eating a wide range of color in your diet guarantees that you are eating a diet rich in antioxidants.