Milk thistle is a plant that is native to the Mediterranean region. Its young fleshy stems are typically consumed, and its sprouts have been used as a medicinal herb for centuries.
It is thorny and can grow up to 5 – 10 feet. When you crush the leaves of the milk thistle plant, you get a milk-like liquid. This is why the plant is called the milk thistle.
Most liver tonics contain milk thistle extracts. The active ingredient is called silymarin which is extracted from milk thistle seeds. Silymarin is used to treat liver conditions.
Several studies have shown that milk thistle supplements can protect and cleanse the liver. It is a popular herbal supplement for many people around the world.
What can it do for the liver?
Your liver is one of the most important organs in the body. It is the central filtration and detoxification organ of the body. A healthy liver function is necessary for a healthy life.
However, your liver health depends on many things, including diet, exercise, stress levels, sleep patterns, and genetics. Dietary supplements are just one way to ensure your liver is protected as it functions.
Milk thistle has shown the ability to protect the liver against damage caused by toxins. Studies suggest that silymarin may improve liver function by keeping toxic substances from binding to liver cells.
It is a popular complementary therapy used to treat alcohol-related liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and chronic hepatitis.
Milk thistle also increases glutathione production in the body. One unique thing about glutathione is that the body is able to make it in the liver, which is not true of most antioxidants. Glutathione is the only antioxidant that occurs naturally inside the cells and is known as the “master antioxidant.”
The silymarin found in milk thistle protects against the depletion of glutathione, which is extremely useful in preventing disease formation.
How strong is the evidence?
Extensive research has been carried out on milk thistle and silymarin, with most of them showing positive results.
Silymarin has shown promise in treating chronic liver diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcoholic liver diseases, two of the most common liver conditions. A randomized clinical trial showed that silymarin consumption for three months was more effective in reducing liver fat than lifestyle changes.
Clinical study also shows that silymarin has antioxidant properties. It has detoxifying effects, which are beneficial to the liver.
A study of chronic viral hepatitis showed dramatic improvements with silymarin. At high doses (420 mg) for 3 to 12 months, silymarin reversed liver cell damage (as noted on biopsy), raised protein levels in the blood, and decreased liver enzyme levels. If the liver is damaged, liver enzymes pass into the bloodstream. A low level of liver enzymes in the bloodstream usually indicates a healthy liver.
We do not recommend using milk thistle or silymarin as the primary treatment for liver conditions. It is a supplement and best used as a preventive or complementary treatment.
Are there side effects of milk thistle?
Milk thistle is a supplement and is generally considered safe to take.
Most people who take milk thistle do not experience any negative effects; however, there are some potential side effects of milk thistle, such as:
- Abdominal bloating
- Loss of appetite
Who should not take milk thistle?
Milk thistle should be avoided if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. It is also capable of causing allergic reactions, so if you show some sensitivity towards ragweed, artichokes, kiwi, or plants in the Asteraceae family, you should avoid milk thistle.
If you have a history of hormone-related cancer, such as breast, uterine, or prostate cancer, It is not recommended to take milk thistle.
Other health benefits of milk thistle
Research suggests that silymarin protects the liver by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. This helps reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and cirrhosis.
Milk thistle is great for the skin. It combats inflammatory skin conditions and offers protection from the sun. Silymarin seems to protect the skin from UV-induced oxidative damage. It is excellent for slowing down skin ageing.
Blood sugar level
A 2016 Journal of Diabetes Research study found that giving silymarin to patients with diabetes alongside their traditional treatments actually reduced blood sugar levels. Because milk thistles may cause low blood glucose, people with diabetes need to adjust their medication accordingly.
Milk thistle also reduces blood cholesterol levels. Researchers found that rats that were given silymarin at 300 and 600mg/kg of body weight had significantly lower total blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood.
An increased cholesterol level in the blood can lead to heart health complications and increases your chance of a stroke. Milk thistle helps prevent this by keeping your blood cholesterol level normal.
Preliminary studies showed that silymarin causes weight reduction in mice on a weight-gain diet. Although silymarin seems to induce weight loss, a human study is needed before a conclusion can be drawn.
Milk thistle has been used for centuries to treat liver problems. This herb is packed full of antioxidants, which protect against free radicals and toxins, and it contains compounds called silymarin, which have powerful detoxifying properties. All of these factors combine to make milk thistle a natural remedy for cleansing the liver. Besides liver health, milk thistle is also beneficial for many other conditions, including skin care, weight loss, and disease prevention.