Silymarin, a flavonolignan from 'milk thistle' (Silybum marianum) plant is used almost exclusively for hepatoprotection and amounts to 180 million US dollars business in Germany alone. In this review we discuss about its safety, efficacy and future uses in liver diseases. The use of silymarin may replace the polyherbal formulations and will avoid the major problems of standardization, quality control and contamination with heavy metals or bacterial toxins. Silymarin consists of four flavonolignan isomers namely- silybin, isosilybin, silydianin and silychristin. Among them, silybin being the most active and commonly used. Silymarin is orally absorbed and is excreted mainly through bile as sulphates and conjugates. Silymarin offers good protection in various toxic models of experimental liver diseases in laboratory animals. It acts by antioxidative, anti-lipidperoxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, membrane stabilizing, immunomodulatory and liver regenerating mechanisms. Silymarin has clinical applications in alcoholic liver diseases, liver cirrhosis, Amanita mushroom poisoning, viral hepatitis, toxic and drug induced liver diseases and in diabetic patients. Though silymarin does not have antiviral properties against hepatitis virus, it promotes protein synthesis, helps in regenerating liver tissue, controls inflammation, enhances glucuronidation and protects against glutathione depletion. Silymarin may prove to be a useful drug for hepatoprotection in hepatobiliary diseases and in hepatotoxicity due to drugs. The non traditional use of silymarin may make a breakthrough as a new approach to protect other organs in addition to liver. As it is having a good safety profile, better patient tolerability and an effective drug at an affordable price, in near future new derivatives or new combinations of this drug may prove to be useful.
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