Milk thistle, a natural herb that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, is commonly used to detoxify the body, especially the liver. Milk thistle (which has the scientific name Silybum marianum) is a weed that grows mostly in California (although it can be grown in many parts of the world with a warm climate) that’s commonly turned into extract or supplement form in order to reap its cell regenerating milk thistle benefits.
As an herb that’s considered a “hepatic, galactogogue, demulcent and cholagogue,” milk thistle is able to promote healthy digestive function by helping with enzyme formation, increasing bile production, decreasing inflammation and soothing the mucous membranes throughout the body.
How Milk Thistle Benefits Work
Milk thistle has actually been used for over 2,000 years. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region and a member of the Asteraceae plant family, which also includes other plants like sunflowers and daisies. The Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides was the first to describe milk thistle’s healing properties back in the year 40 A.D.
Milk thistle benefits work by drawing toxins out of the body that can cause a range of symptoms and diseases — including cancer development, high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney stones, gall bladder disorders, negative effects of chemotherapy, alcohol use, skin damage and much more. (1)
As an antioxidant, milk thistle is equally powerful to other important nutrients like vitamin E or vitamin C, which help fight free radical damage and slow the aging process that can lead to disease development. It specifically contains high levels of lipophilic extracts from the seeds of the plant, which act as bioflavanoid antioxidants that increase immunity and slow down oxidative stress. (2)
While it has many different benefits, milk thistle is most well-known for being a natural liver supporter and detoxifier. The liver constantly works hard to help defend us from toxins that are common in our everyday life, acting like a filter and removing harmful substances from the body.
The seeds and leaves of the milk thistle plant can be consumed either in pill, powder, tincture, extract or tea form. The seeds can actually be eaten completely raw too, but usually people prefer to take a milk thistle extract or supplement in order to consume a higher dose and see bigger results.
Milk thistle gets its name from the milky-white liquid that runs off of the plant’s leaves when they’re crushed. The actual leaves of the plant also have a spotted white pattern that makes them look as if they’ve been dunked in milk.
Top 7 Milk Thistle Benefits
1. Liver Detoxification & Health
As a liver support and liver aid, milk thistle is a powerful detoxifier. It helps rebuild liver cells while removing toxins from the body that are processed through the liver. Milk thistle is effective at naturally reversing the harmful effects of alcohol consumption, pesticides in our food supply, heavy metals in our water supply, pollution in the air that we breathe in and even poisons!
The liver is actually our largest internal organ and is responsible for performing a number of essential detoxifying functions. The condition of our blood throughout our whole body is mostly reliant on the health of our liver. As a “blood purifier,” the liver needs to actively clean the blood each and every day in order to support nearly every system within our body.
The liver helps remove harmful substances from our blood, aids in hormone production, detoxifies the body, releases glucose into the bloodstream in order to give our body steady energy and releases bile into our small intestine so fat can be absorbed from foods. You can see why poor liver function can create so many problems!
2. Helps Protect Against Cancer
Milk thistle seeds are a high source of the antioxidant flavonoid called silymarin. Silymarin is associated with decreasing the risk for cancer development by boosting the immune system, fighting DNA damage and reversing cancerous tumor growth.
In 2007, after reviewing numerous studies involving milk thistle therapeutic treatments, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that:
“There is strong preclinical evidence for silymarin’s hepatoprotective and anticarcinogenic effects, including inhibition of cancer cell growth in human prostate, skin, breast, and cervical cells.” (4)
About 50 percent to 70 percent of the silymarin molecules present within milk thistle are the type called silybin. This antioxidant stimulates protein synthesis and changes the outside layer of healthy cells, keeping them protected from damage and mutation. It inhibits toxins from dwelling in the body; helps with cell renewal; and counteracts the harmful effects of pollutants, chemicals and heavy metals that can cause “free radical damage.”
Silymarin acts as a cancer protector because it’s “a toxin blockade agent” and inhibits binding of toxins to the cell membrane receptors, according to researchers at the University Magna Graecia Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine. (5)
3. Can Help Lower High Cholesterol
The U.S. National Library of Medicine considers milk thistle to be a powerful anti-inflammatory, stopping inflammation, which is one of the main causes of heart disease. Milk thistle benefits heart health and helps lower high cholesterol levels by lowering inflammation, cleaning the blood and preventing oxidative stress damage within the arteries.
Although more formal research is still needed, preliminary studies show that when syilymarin milk thistle extract is used in combination with other traditional treatment methods, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides levels all improve compared to levels before taking milk thistle. (6)
Something important to keep in mind, however, is that existing studies on possible heart benefits of milk thistle have only been done involving people with diabetes, who tend to have high cholesterol levels. So at this time it’s unclear if milk thistle has the same effects in other people and if it will be used to naturally lower cholesterol levels in the future.
4. May Help Control or Prevent Diabetes
According to National Institute of Health, there’s some compelling research showing that taking silymarin, the main chemical found in milk thistle, along with conventional treatments can help control symptoms of diabetes by helping with glycemic control. The valuable effect of antioxidants found in milk thistle has been reported in experimental and clinical studies to help decrease blood sugar levels in insulin-resistant patients.
One 2006 study conducted by the Department of Pharmacology at the Institute of Medicinal Plants found that when diabetic patients were given silymarin extract over four weeks, their fasting blood glucose and insulin levels improved significantly compared to patients receiving a placebo. (7)
This is likely true because the liver is partly responsible for regulating hormones, including the release of insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is responsible for managing blood glucose (sugar) levels in the blood, which is especially important for those with diabetes.
5. Helps Prevent Gallstones
The liver is a major digestive organ, helping process nutrients and toxins that enter our body through foods, water and air. Because the liver and other digestive organs — like the gallbladder, pancreas, intestines and kidneys — work closely together to improve liver health so much, milk thistle is also able to help prevent gallstones and kidney stones.
Milk thistle benefits help support the endocrine and gastrointestinal systems by aiding in the production of bile and enzymes, on top of helping clean the blood. Milk thistle can help purify the body of metabolic waste, thereby regulating the function of the gallbladder, in addition to the kidneys and spleen.
6. Boosts Skin Health
Studies show that phytochemicals, like those found in silymarin of milk thistle, are effective at inhibiting UV light-induced oxidative stress on the skin. Milk thistle is considered to be a potent inhibitor of UV-induced oxidative stress that can cause skin diseases like skin cancer. Research also suggests that applying silymarin found in milk thistle to the skin reduces skin damage caused by radiation treatment in patients who have had treatments for cancer. (8)
In 2008, when researchers from the Department of Dermatology at the University of Alabama Birmingham compared the effects of strong UV light exposure on the skin of mice, mice who received milk thistle extract showed much less damage on the skin than the mice who did not receive milk thistle.
7. Has Anti-Aging Effects
Because milk thistle’s antioxidants help prevent free radical damage throughout the body and remove pollutants and waste from the blood and digestive tract, it can actually slow the aging process. This is true on both the surface of your skin and also within your organs.
Milk thistle benefits can also reduce your risk for some of the most common and serious disorders that develop in adults as they age, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney and liver damage, aged skin, and vision-related problems.
Milk thistle’s protective qualities of the skin make it great for reducing visible signs of aging, so consuming milk thistle can be an easy way to prevent skin cancer and skin damage, such as dark spots, wrinkles, lines and discoloration. (9) The same antioxidant properties make it useful for maintaining the health of your eyes, joints and muscles.
Milk Thistle and Glutathione
Silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, is an antioxidant that can protect against depletion of glutathione, which is a “master antioxidant” that’s extremely useful at helping prevent disease formation. Glutathione is found naturally in the human body, as well as in some plants, mushrooms, fungus and algae.
Its biggest role is to help fight oxidative stress that leads to such diseases as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases. It can help prevent damage to important cellular components caused by reactive oxygen species, such as free radicals.
One of the biggest milk thistle benefits is that it preserves glutathione. The modern American diet, pollution, toxins, medications, stress, trauma, aging, infections and radiation all work to deplete liver capabilities and also glutathione in the body. Milk thistle helps increase glutathione levels by improving liver detox functions. Milk thistle strengthens the liver cell walls, buffering them from invading toxins, and supports liver regeneration and glutathione formation.
Recommended Dosage of Milk Thistle
Because milk thistle is categorized as a supplement, rather than a drug, it’s not subject to the same oversight and quality control from the FDA that standard drugs are. The amount of active ingredients can vary widely depending on the different preparation methods used and the brand. Currently, there are several different compounds available on the market, all recommending different doses.
Dosing hasn’t been nationally standardized yet at this time, but most people do best consuming between 20-300 milligrams daily.
- As a way to detoxify the body temporarily, the recommended daily intake of milk thistle is 150 milligrams, taken one to three times daily. This is a somewhat high dose that can act as a natural liver “detox.”
- For ongoing use and liver support, take 50 to 150 milligrams daily.
Look for a high-quality product that’s between 50–150 milligrams of pure milk thistle extract per capsule so you can adjust the amount you are taking depending on your needs. And make sure to look for a company that sells highly potent extract labeled at least 80 percent pure milk thistle extract.
You can also try benefiting from milk thistle by consuming it in tea form. Many companies like Alvita, Traditional Medicinals and Celebration Herbals make milk thistle tea by steeping the leaves and seeds from the plant.
You can also grow your own milk thistle and make homemade tea if you’re up for harvesting the plants. Each small plant head contains about 190 seeds that can be used in various ways. If you purchase or grow a milk thistle plant, cut off the entire head and hand the plant upside down for about one week to draw out the seeds.
You can then crush the seeds and seep them along with the leaves to make tea, eat them raw or dry then into powder form. Keep the seeds and leaves in the freezer to make them last longer and retain their powerful nutrients.
Milk Thistle Side Effects
Milk thistle is considered safe and well-tolerated, with very few cases of side effects ever reported. The most common side effects aren’t serious and include gastrointestinal upset, such as a mild laxative effect. When taken within the recommended dose range, milk thistle is thought to be effective and mostly free of allergic reactions and interactions. (10)
One thing to note is that in certain situations, antioxidants like those found in milk thistle have been shown to possibly interfere with the efficacy of some cancer chemotherapy drugs by protecting cancer cells from cell death. This means that understanding appropriate doses and examining blood concentrations is important before milk thistle could be used as a true anti-cancer therapy.
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