Milk Thistle and Cushing’s Disease

Did You Know…that a natural plant extract could cure rare brain tumors?

Milk thistle has been used in traditional medicine for more than 2,000 years, particularly for liver and gall bladder problems.  Now, a chemical extracted from the seeds of the milk thistle plant is offering new hope for brain tumors caused by Cushing’s disease.

The promising new study on milk thistle and Cushing’s disease was published in the journal Nature Medicine in February.


What is Cushing’s Disease?

Cushing’s disease most commonly affects ages 20-50.  The condition stems from a tumor in the pituitary gland in the brain, which increases levels of the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH).  Excess ACTH then causes the adrenal glands to excrete more of the stress hormone cortisol.  Excessive stress hormones then cause a slew of negative health consequences such as rapid weight gain… high blood pressure… muscle weakness… osteoporosis… infections… depression… and cognitive decline. 

A Non-Invasive Treatment 

At present, the most common treatment for Cushing’s sufferers is brain surgery—that option is used in about 85% of cases.  The only other approved treatment is associated with extreme side effects.

The new study in Nature Medicine, however, found that an extract of milk thistle seeds called silibinin successfully treated Cushing’s disease in cell cultures, animal models, and human tumor tissue.

Lead researcher Marcelo Paez-Pereda explained:  “We knew that Cushing’s Disease is caused by the release of too much ACTH.  So we asked ourselves what causes this over production and how to stop it.”

Compelled by that question, the researchers ultimately confirmed that silibinin treatment slowed the growth of the tumors as well as restored ACTH production to normal levels.  Silibinin treatment was even able to eradicate all disease symptoms in the live mice in the study.

Future Research in the Works 

Silibinin and milk thistle are already recognized as safe for use in humans—in fact, both are already widely used for treating other diseases.

“Silibinin has an outstanding safety profile in humans and is already used for the treatment of liver disease and poisoning,” says Paez-Pereda.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute, where the study was conducted, have already filed a patent for the use of silibinin for the treatment of pituitary tumors.  Now, they are planning clinical trials of silibinin in humans with Cushing’s disease.

Hope for Other, More Common Diseases 

Cushing’s disease is rare, affecting only about 5.5 of every 100,000 people.  However, this new research on silibinin and its mechanisms in the body suggests that it may have healing effects for other, more common conditions.

“With silibinin we might have discovered a non-invasive treatment strategy not only for the rare Cushing’s Disease but also for other conditions… such as lung tumors, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or multiple myeloma,” Paez-Pereda said.

Furthermore, silibinin may also offer great hope in the realm of veterinary medicine, since Cushing’s disease is quite common in certain animals.