Hep B Blog

What is silymarin (milk thistle), and is it helpful for managing my hepatitis B and D?

 

Silymarin, an herb and extract of milk thistle seeds, is a supplement commonly taken by hepatitis patients across the world, yet its proven benefits remain controversial. It is not a treatment for hepatitis B or D, nor has it been shown to have any effect against fighting the viruses. This herb is believed to have possible benefits on liver health due to its antioxidant and free radical fighting properties, although no studies have found a consistent positive effect on viral load or fibrosis scores 1 .

Silymarin is often taken by patients or suggested by their health care provider during or after interferon treatment ends, presumably with the hope of a protective or anti-inflammatory effect on the liver. But a 2013 study on hepatitis C patients unsuccessfully treated with interferon (the standard treatment for hepatitis B and D coinfection) found no significant difference in silymarin’s ability to lower ALT scores over placebo, a pill with no active drug ingredients 2 . Another 2013 metanalysis reviewed 8 studies which tested silymarin against a placebo and looked for measurable levels of improvement in ALT scores, of which the results were mixed and inconsistent1.

Interestingly, several studies have found improvements in patients’ self-reported patient quality of life after taking silymarin 1 – perhaps due to decreased stress or self-perceived control over their health. However, a 2012 study which randomly assigned patients either silymarin or placebo to measure possible declines in ALT or virus levels, in addition to self-reported quality of life, found little to no improvement in any of these outcomes3 regardless of whether they took milk thistle or a placebo.

As mentioned in our previous blog post, the U.S. National Institutes for Health (NIH) has published a directory of what scientific research has discovered about common herbal supplements. Probably the most popular herbal supplement pitched as a liver remedy is milk thistle, and its extract silymarin. The NIH milk thistle report found, “Previous laboratory studies suggested that milk thistle may benefit the liver by protecting and promoting the growth of liver cells, fighting oxidation (a chemical process that can damage cells), and inhibiting inflammation. However, results from small clinical trials of milk thistle for liver diseases have been mixed, and two rigorously designed studies found no benefit.”

The verdict on silymarin? Due to mixed literature and lack of proven improvements, patients should not rely on silymarin as a treatment for hepatitis B or D, and should discuss any new prescription recommendations with their doctor. Silymarin will not counterbalance damage done by hepatitis B or D viruses. While some studies have found silymarin to be well tolerated with low side-effects6, individual reactions can vary. In the U.S., supplements including silymarin are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making the true contents of supplements unknown. For these reasons, patients should be cautious about supplements and consider additional ways to improve their overall health. Lifestyle changes including eating a nutritious, balanced diet, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and getting regular exercise have been repeatedly proven to have the ability to lower ALT and AST numbers4,5. It is understandable why many patients may turn to herbal supplements for possible health benefits, but without more consistent regulation, and proven clinical benefit, investing in overall healthy lifestyle changes may prove most beneficial.

It is very important for hepatitis B and D patients to be managed by a doctor, preferably a liver specialist, who is familiar with managing coinfected patients. For assistance in locating a specialist near you, please visit our Physician Directory page. For additional questions, please visit www.hepdconnect.org or email connect@hepdconnect.org.

Disclaimer: Herbal products are not U.S.FDA approved, and the Hepatitis B Foundation cannot endorse the usage of such products that lack regulation and scientific evidence to deem them both effective and safe.

References

1. Polyak, S. J., Ferenci, P., & Pawlotsky, J. M. (2013). Hepatoprotective and antiviral functions of silymarin components in hepatitis C virus infection. Hepatology (Baltimore, Md.), 57(3), 1262-71.

2. Fried, M. W., Navarro, V. J., Afdhal, N., Belle, S. H., Wahed, A. S., Hawke, R. L., Doo, E., Meyers, C. M., Reddy, K. R., Silymarin in NASH and C Hepatitis (SyNCH) Study Group (2012). Effect of silymarin (milk thistle) on liver disease in patients with chronic hepatitis C unsuccessfully treated with interferon therapy: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 308(3), 274-82.

3. Fried MW, Navarro VJ, Afdhal N, et al. Effect of Silymarin (Milk Thistle) on Liver Disease in Patients with Chronic Hepatitis C Unsuccessfully Treated with Interferon Therapy: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA.2012;308(3):274–282. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.8265

4. Rusu, E., Jinga, M., Enache, G., Rusu, F., Dragomir, A. D., Ancuta, I., Draguţ, R., Parpala, C., Nan, R., Sima, I., Ateia, S., Stoica, V., Cheţa, D. M., Radulian, G. (2013). Effects of lifestyle changes including specific dietary intervention and physical activity in the management of patients with chronic hepatitis C–a randomized trial. Nutrition journal, 12, 119.

5. St George A, Bauman A, Johnston A, Farrell G, Chey T, George J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Mar; 24(3):399-407.

6. Rambaldi, Andrea & P Jacobs, Bradly & Gluud, Christian. (2007). Milk thistle for alcoholic and/or hepatitis B or C virus liver diseases. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online).

What’s the Difference: Hepatitis A vs Hepatitis B

With five different types of viral hepatitis, it can be difficult to understand the differences between them. Some forms of hepatitis get more attention than others, but it is still important to know how they are transmitted, what they do, and the steps that you can take to protect yourself and your liver!

This is part two in a three-part series.

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver”. A liver can become inflamed for many reasons, such as too much alcohol, physical injury, autoimmune response, or a reaction to bacteria or a virus. The five most common hepatitis viruses are A, B, C, D, and E. Some hepatitis viruses can lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver failure, or even liver cancer. Damage to the liver reduces its ability to function and makes it harder for your body to filter out toxins.

Hepatitis A vs. Hepatitis B

While hepatitis A and B both impact the liver, the two viruses differ greatly from one another. Hepatitis B is a blood-borne pathogen; its primary mode of transmission is through direct blood-to-blood contact with an infected person. In contrast, hepatitis A can be spread by fecal-oral transmission or by consuming food or water that has been contaminated. It is important to note that a person cannot contract hepatitis B through casual interactions such as holding hands, sharing a meal with, or eating foods prepared by someone who is infected. There is no need to keep plates and utensils separate. However, hepatitis A can be spread through food that is prepared by an infected person. Hepatitis A is primarily caused by poor sanitation and personal hygiene. Poor sanitation and hygiene can be the result of a lack of essential infrastructure like waste management or clean water systems. It can also result from a lack of education.

Hepatitis A is an acute infection; the virus typically stays in the body for a short amount of time and most people make a full recovery after several weeks. Recently, the United States has seen a rise in hepatitis A infections. The rise is partially attributed to a growing homeless population and increases in injection drug use. You can track hepatitis A outbreaks in the United States by using this map.

Unlike hepatitis B, which rarely has symptoms, people infected with hepatitis A generally develop symptoms four weeks after exposure. However, children under the age of 6 often do not show any symptoms. Oftentimes, an infected adult will experience nausea, vomiting, fever, dark urine, or abdominal pain. Older children and adults with hepatitis A will typically experience jaundice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Once a person makes a recovery, they cannot be reinfected. Their body develops protective antibodies that will recognize the virus and fight it off if it enters their system again. Hepatitis A rarely causes lasting liver damage, but in a small percentage of individuals, it can cause acute liver failure called fulminant hepatitis. Some people with hepatitis A feel ill enough that they need to be hospitalized to receive fluids and supportive care.

On the other hand, hepatitis B begins as a short-term infection, but in some cases, it can progress into a chronic, or life-long, infection. Chronic hepatitis B is the world’s leading cause of liver cancer and can lead to serious liver diseases such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. Most adults who become infected with hepatitis B develop an acute infection and will make a full recovery in approximately six months. However, about 90% of infected newborns and up to 50% of young children will develop a life-long infection. This is because hepatitis B can be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby due to exposure to her blood. Many infected mothers do not know they are infected and therefore cannot work with their physicians to take the necessary precautions to prevent transmission. It is extremely important for all pregnant women to get tested for the hepatitis B – if they are infected, transmission to their baby can be prevented!

There are vaccines to protect people against both hepatitis A and hepatitis B. If you are unvaccinated and believe that you have been exposed to hepatitis A, you should contact your doctor or local health department to get tested. If you were exposed by consuming contaminated food, the health department can work with you to identify the source of exposure and prevent a potential outbreak. Depending on the situation and when you were exposed, your doctor may administer postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) to help prevent the infection or lessen its impact. For hepatitis A, PEP is given in the form of one dose of the vaccine or immune goblin.

For unvaccinated individuals, PEP is also recommended after a possible exposure to hepatitis B and is usually given as a dose of the vaccine. In certain cases, a physician will recommend that a patient receive both the vaccine and a dose of hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) for additional protection. As recommended by the CDC, all infants born to hepatitis B surface antigen positive mothers (HBsAg positive) should receive both a dose of the hepatitis B vaccine and a dose of HBIG within 12 hours of birth in order to prevent transmission. As timing is crucial in the prevention of disease, a healthcare provider should be notified as quickly as possible after a potential exposure.

Prevention

Hepatitis A and B vaccines can protect you for life! The hepatitis A vaccine is given in 2-doses over the span of six months and the hepatitis B vaccine is given in 3-doses over the course of six months; there is even a 2-dose hepatitis B vaccine now available in the U.S.! You can also ask your doctor about getting the combination vaccine for hepatitis A and B together, which will reduce the number of shots you need.

The CDC recommends that people living with chronic hepatitis B also get vaccinated for hepatitis A to protect themselves against another liver infection and potential liver damage. While the hepatitis A vaccine is routinely given to children in the United States, other countries have different vaccine recommendations, so check with your doctor to see if you have been vaccinated. Hepatitis A can also be prevented by good hygiene practices like washing your hands with soap and hot water after using the bathroom or before preparing food, but the best form of prevention is always vaccination!

What’s the Difference: Hepatitis B vs Hepatitis C?

With five different types of viral hepatitis, it can be difficult to understand the differences between them. Some forms of hepatitis get more attention than others, but it is still important to know how they are transmitted, what they do, and the steps that you can take to protect yourself and your liver!

This is part one in a three-part series.

What is Hepatitis?

Hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver”. A liver can become inflamed for many reasons, such as too much alcohol, physical injury, autoimmune response, or a reaction to bacteria or a virus. The five most common hepatitis viruses are A, B, C, D, and E. Some hepatitis viruses can lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis, liver failure, or even liver cancer. Damage to the liver reduces its ability to function and makes it harder for your body to filter out toxins.

Both hepatitis B and C are blood-borne pathogens, which means that their primary mode of transmission is through direct blood-to-blood contact with an infected person. Also, both hepatitis B and C can cause chronic, lifelong infections that can lead to serious liver disease. Hepatitis B is most commonly spread from mother-to-child during birth while hepatitis C is more commonly spread through the use of unclean needles used to inject drugs.

 

Hepatitis B vs. Hepatitis C

Despite having an effective vaccine, hepatitis B is the world’s most common liver infection; over 292 million people around the world are estimated to be living with chronic hepatitis B. While hepatitis C tends to get more attention and research funding, hepatitis B is considerably more common and causes more liver-related cancer and death worldwide than hepatitis C. Combined, chronic hepatitis B and C account for approximately 80% of the world’s liver cancer cases. However, studies show that those with chronic hepatitis B are more likely to die from liver-related complications than those who are infected with hepatitis C. With hepatitis C, most people develop cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, before liver cancer. In certain cases of hepatitis B, liver cancer can develop without any signs of cirrhosis, which makes it extremely difficult to predict the virus’ impacts on the body, and makes screening for liver cancer more complicated.

The hepatitis B virus is also approximately 5-10 times more infectious than hepatitis C, and far more stable. It can survive – and remain highly contagious – on surfaces outside of the body for up to 7 days if it is not properly cleaned with a disinfectant or a simple bleach solution. A new study suggests that the hepatitis B virus has the ability to survive in extreme temperatures, whereas the hepatitis C virus has been known to survive outside of the body for a short period of time on room-temperature surfaces. However, more research will need to be done on the topic.

Another major difference between the two forms of hepatitis is how the virus attacks a cell. The hepatitis C virus operates like other viruses; it enters a healthy cell and produces copies of itself that

Hepatitis C Virus
Courtesy of Google Images

go on to infect other healthy cells. The hepatitis B virus reproduces in a similar fashion, but with one large difference – covalently closed circular DNA. Covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) is a structure that is unique to only a few viruses. Unlike a typical virus, hepatitis B’s cccDNA permanently integrates itself into a healthy cell’s DNA – a component of the cell that allows it to function properly and produce more healthy cells. The cccDNA resides within an essential area of the cell called the nucleus and can remain there even if an infected person’s hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) levels are undetectable. Its presence means that a person with chronic hepatitis B may have a risk of reactivation even if the HBsAg levels have been undetectable for a long period of time. The complex nature and integration process of cccDNA contributes to the difficulties of finding a cure for hepatitis B. The cccDNA’s location inside of the nucleus is especially troublesome because it makes it difficult to isolate and destroy the cccDNA without harming the rest of the cell.

Hepatitis C, on the other hand, has a cure! Approved by the FDA in 2013, the cure is in the form of an antiviral pill that is taken once a day over the course of 8-12 weeks. For hepatitis C, a cure is defined as a sustained virologic response (SVR), which means that the virus is not detected in a person’s blood 3 months after treatment has been completed. In the United States, an affordable, generic version of the hepatitis C cure is set to be released by Gilead Sciences, Inc. in January 2019.

People living with chronic hepatitis B are susceptible to hepatitis Delta. Only people with hepatitis B can contract hepatitis D as well. Hepatitis Delta is considered to be the most severe form of hepatitis because of its potential to quickly lead to more serious liver disease than hepatitis B alone. Of the 292 million people living with chronic hepatitis B, approximately 15-20 million are also living with hepatitis D. Unlike HIV and hepatitis C coinfections, there are currently no FDA approved treatments for hepatitis Delta. However, there are ongoing clinical trials that are researching potential treatments!

Hepatitis B/C Coinfection

It is possible to have both hepatitis B and C at the same time. The hepatitis C virus may appear more dominant and reduce hepatitis B to low or undetectable levels in the bloodstream. Prior to curative treatment for hepatitis C, it is important for people to get tested for hepatitis B using the three-part blood test (HBsAg, anti-HBc total and anti-HBs). People currently infected with hepatitis B (HBsAg positive) or those who have recovered from past infection (HBsAg negative and anti-HBc positive) should be carefully managed according to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) treatment guidelines in order to avoid dangerous elevation of liver enzymes resulting in liver damage.

How to Protect Yourself   

The hepatitis B vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your family against hepatitis B. Although there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, you can protect yourself from both liver infections by following simple precautions! Simple steps such as not sharing personal items such as razors or toothbrushes, thoroughly washing your hands, and disinfecting surfaces that have been in contact with blood, can keep your liver healthy!