Milk thistle is a popular herbal remedy best known for its liver-protecting properties. This herb (also known as Silybum marianum) is native to the Mediterranean region. The benefits of milk thistle can be attributed to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. This flowering plant can help control blood sugar levels and enhance bone health. In this article, we have discussed the health benefits, nutritional profile, and possible side of milk thistle. Keep reading to know more!
In This Article
How Does Milk Thistle Benefit You?
Milk thistle works by flushing out the toxins in the body, which can otherwise cause issues like liver cirrhosis, kidney stones, diabetes, ill effects of chemotherapy, etc.
The other important nutrients in milk thistle, like vitamin E, fight free radicals and can delay the signs of aging. These characteristics of milk thistle (along with a few others that we will discuss in a while) make it what it is – a simple herb bestowing us with its great benefits.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Milk Thistle?
1. Milk Thistle Boosts Liver Health
Milk thistle contains silymarin, an active ingredient that protects the liver. The ingredient is a group of flavonoids that repair the liver cells that are damaged by alcohol and other toxins. Silymarin also protects the new liver cells from getting destroyed. Throughout history, this herb has been used to treat liver diseases (2).
2. Protects The Kidneys And Gallbladder
As the kidneys work closely with the liver, and as milk thistle helps support liver health, it also promotes kidney functioning. The same goes for gallstones as well – studies have shown that this herb can help prevent gallstone formation. Milk thistle also protects the kidney cells, especially in the case of diabetic neuropathy (a condition in diabetes where kidney function is impaired) (3). It also supports the detoxification of the kidneys and gallbladder.
3. Aids Diabetes Treatment
Research suggests that when coupled with traditional treatment, milk thistle can improve diabetes. The herb can also improve insulin resistance and lower blood sugar levels. These effects of milk thistle can be attributed to silymarin (4).
Milk thistle also contains another compound called silibin, which was found to have positive effects on several diabetes complications (5). And another reason it could be good for diabetics is that it protects the liver – the liver also plays some role in releasing insulin into the bloodstream.
4. Milk Thistle Enhances Heart Health
Milk thistle may lower bad cholesterol and hence cut the risk of heart disease (6). It can also lower the cholesterol levels by lowering inflammation. It cleans the blood and prevents damage to the arteries due to oxidative stress. The herb also prevents glutathione depletion (we will discuss more of this in a bit), which is a master antioxidant that fights oxidative stress and prevents heart disease.
Other clinical studies have also proved that milk thistle has cardioprotective effects (7). A few other studies have shown how milk thistle can regulate blood pressure too.
5. Can Help In Cancer Treatment
The silybin in milk thistle can improve the functioning of certain chemotherapy drugs, especially in the case of ovarian cancer. The herb was also found to slow down the progression of prostate cancer cells. Some animal studies also found how milk thistle could reduce the side effects of chemotherapy (8).
Other studies state that milk thistle can induce cancer cell death in the case of colon and breast cancers. Though there is more research required in humans, this sure is an encouraging step (9).
6. Can Aid Weight Loss
There is some early research that shows how milk thistle can aid healthy weight loss. Mice fed with a high-fat diet lost weight after taking silymarin (10). And as milk thistle can regulate blood sugar, it may also help with weight loss – as research links steady blood sugar levels to improved weight loss.
7. Promotes Brain Health
Some early suggests that milk thistle can protect against multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Silymarin was also found to suppress the formation of amyloid beta-protein, which is often linked to Alzheimer’s.
Several other studies also show how milk thistle can help prevent age-related brain ailments like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Some research also talks about the importance of milk thistle in treating anxiety and depression – but we need more information on this before we come to conclusions.
8. Milk Thistle Strengthens Bones
Studies confirm that milk thistle can be used as a potential treatment for osteoporosis. The silymarin in milk thistle was found to be helpful in building bones and preventing bone loss (12).
Other studies talk about bone loss caused by estrogen, and how milk thistle might benefit in this aspect as well.
9. Delays Aging
The antioxidants in milk thistle fight free radical damage, and this eventually slows down the aging process. This is equally true with the signs of aging on the surface of your skin and within your internal organs.
Some research says that consuming milk thistle is one good way to reduce the signs of aging – which include wrinkles, dark spots, and fine lines (13). Internally, these antioxidants can delay aging by preventing joint pains and improving eye health.
10. Might Be Beneficial During Breastfeeding
Historically, milk thistle was used to increase the supply of breast milk. Some preliminary studies show that it can increase the levels of prolactin in the body, which eventually stimulates milk production.
However, we suggest you take your doctor’s advice before using the herb in this regard.
11. Boosts Immunity And Prevents Allergies
Studies have shown that milk thistle can have immunostimulatory effects. It can boost immunity and improve the body’s ability to ward off infections and diseases (14). And since milk thistle improves liver function, this also benefits the immune system – as the two are closely interlinked.
The antioxidants in milk thistle also boost immunity and counter allergies. Skin rashes are one of the allergies that milk thistle can counter. More importantly, the herb might fight acne as well. As acne is also caused due to bodily toxins, the detoxifying effect of milk thistle can have desirable effects on it.
12. Improves Digestive Health
Milk thistle boosts enzyme formation and the production of bile – and this contributes to digestive health. And given its anti-inflammatory properties, the herb also soothes the mucus membranes in the gut.
Studies also show how milk thistle has been used for centuries to treat upper gastrointestinal issues and other digestive ailments (15).
Those are the benefits of milk thistle. But there is another important aspect we need to know.
Milk Thistle And Glutathione (And Other Synergies)
We already discussed how milk thistle (silymarin) could protect against glutathione depletion. The herb, basically, preserves glutathione. This eventually strengthens the liver cell walls.
Glutathione is not the only compound milk thistle acts with in synergy. Other important ingredients like ashwagandha, curcumin, green tea extract, and gingko biloba extract powder also work in synergy with milk thistle and improve the antioxidant defense of the body.
There are other important compounds in milk thistle that are responsible for its wonderful benefits.
What Is The Nutritional Profile Of Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle contains a bio-flavanoid complex called silymarin. It is the primary ingredient of the plant. It is also the active compound that gives milk thistle its medicinal properties. Silymarin is made up of 3 flavanoids:
- Silybin, which is also known as silibinin.
- Silydianin, which is also known as silidianin.
- Silychristin, also known as silicristin.
The main flavanoid in silymarin is silybin, which makes up about 50-70% of milk thistle’s most important extract. Silybin has been studied clinically, and researchers have found it to be the most beneficial and biologically-active component of silymarin.
Before extraction, milk thistle’s fruits contain:
- Neo-silyhermin A and B
- Vitamin E
The leaves contain:
- Luteolin’s 7-0-Glucoside
- Triterpene acetate
- Fumaric acid
However, there are certain things about milk thistle that are not so good. Its overdose might lead to certain undesirable conditions.
What Are The Side Effects Of Milk Thistle?
- Might Lower Blood Sugar Way Too Much
Since milk thistle helps lower blood sugar, it might lower the levels way too much in case someone is already on diabetes medications. Hence, consult your doctor before using it.
Milk thistle can cause allergies in people who are sensitive to ragweed and other plants of the same family (Asteraceae).
- Might Aggravate Hormone-Sensitive Conditions
Since milk thistle extracts might mimic estrogen, it might aggravate hormone-sensitive conditions like breast and uterine fibroids and uterine cancer. Hence, it is best to consult a doctor before using it.
Milk thistle is an herbal remedy known for its therapeutic properties. The many benefits of milk thistle can be attributed to its rich nutritional profile and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It may boost liver health, protect the kidneys and gallbladder, aid in diabetes treatment, enhance heart health, fight against cancer, and help in weight loss. However, an overdose of milk thistle may lead to many side effects. It may lower blood sugar levels way too much, cause allergies, and lead to uterine cancer and uterine fibroids. Hence, use it in moderation to reap its maximum benefits.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to make milk thistle tea?
Crush a tablespoon of milk thistle seeds and add it to three cups of boiling water. Steep for about 20 minutes and then strain. You can take one cup at least 30 minutes before meals – once each in the morning, afternoon, evening, and before going to bed.
What is the ideal dosage of milk thistle?
The dosage is 150 milligrams per day – and this acts as a liver detox. For normal use, you can take between 50 and 150 milligrams daily.
Where to buy milk thistle?
You can get it from the nearest health store or online.
What is the best way to take milk thistle?
Though taking milk thistle the natural way may be better, it all boils down to your needs. Please check with your doctor.
Is it best to take milk thistle on an empty stomach?
Yes. Some sources say doing so makes it work faster. But do consult your doctor as well. This is because other reliable sources say that taking milk thistle on an empty stomach can lead to diarrhea.
What to avoid when taking milk thistle?
Milk thistle can inhibit the metabolism of certain drugs. Hence, ask your doctor if any of the medications you are taking could be metabolized by a liver enzyme called CYP3A4.
- Protective effects of silymarin, a milk thistle (Silybium marianum) derivative on ethanol-induced oxidative stress in liver. Indian Journal of Biochemistry & Biophysics, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future. Phytotherapy Research, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Silymarin and diabetic nephropathy, Journal of Renal Injury Prevention, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Silymarin in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, Journal of Diabetes Research, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- The Therapeutic Potential of Milk Thistle in Diabetes, The Review of Diabetic Studies, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- The efficacy of Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (silymarin) in the treatment of type II diabetes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trial. Phytotherapy Research, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Multitargeted therapy of cancer by silymarin, Cancer Letters, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Milk thistle, Cancer Research UK.
- Milk thistle: early seeds of potential, The Lancet. Oncology
- Silymarin improved diet-induced liver damage and insulin resistance by decreasing inflammation in mice. Pharmaceutical Biology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- A Mini Review on the Chemistry and Neuroprotective Effects of Silymarin. Current Drug Targets, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Milk thistle: a future potential anti-osteoporotic and fracture healing agent. Current Drug Targets, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Silymarin, a Flavonoid from Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum L.), Inhibits UV-induced Oxidative Stress Through Targeting Infiltrating CD11b+ Cells in Mouse Skin, Photochemistry and Photobiology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- Immunostimulatory effect of Silybum Marianum (milk thistle) extract. Medical Science Monitor, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- “Silymarin”, a Promising Pharmacological Agent for Treatment of Diseases, Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.