Milk thistle or Silybum marianum is a medicinal herb with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which are widely used to treat liver conditions in the USA.
Other than the liver, other vital organs like the intestine, gallbladder, and kidneys are also benefitted by its detoxification function and protective action on the mucosa (inner lining).
Also, you will be shocked to know that this small plant has the power to treat complex and dangerous conditions like hepatitis and liver cirrhosis which can’t be remedied entirely even by modern medications.
Milk thistle’s blood sugar and cholesterol lowering activity combined with its anti-inflammatory property makes it an ideal adjunct to conventional medicines in diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.
It also promotes healthy skin and weight loss while delaying the signs of aging. Extracts from this wonder herb also prevent the spread of cancer while alleviating the symptoms of allergic asthma.
What is milk thistle and why should we take it?
Milk thistle is a Mediterranean plant belonging to the Asteraceae family which also hosts other beautiful plants like sunflower and daisy. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, and botanist in 40 A.D. described milk thistle’s healing properties for the first time.
Since then, the use of this curative plant has seen an ever-increasing curve all around the world. Milk thistle is named so due to the milky white fluid that comes from crushed leaves.
Also, the fresh leaves of the plant are studded with white dots simulating a leaf that was immersed in milk.
Milk thistle’s beneficial role in liver conditions like liver cirrhosis and hepatitis are widely known, and research shows that it is because of the numerous flavonoids present in it which draw out toxins and free radicals from liver cells.
Therefore, it protects your liver from the attacks of toxins, antibiotics, alcohol, heavy metals, pollution, and micro-organisms.
Its anti-oxidant activity is similar to that of vitamins C and E which protects the body’s lipids, proteins, and DNA from the shackles of harmful free radicals.
This improves your immunity, simmers down inflammatory reactions, and slows down the aging process.
You can crush the dried seeds and leaves of milk thistle and convert the milky white fluid into pills, powder, extract, and tincture.
Raw seeds are also palatable, but if you want to ingest higher doses and want faster results, you must go for extracts or supplements.
Health benefits of milk thistle
1. Supplements the detox action of the liver
You consume a myriad of poisons daily either by ingestion, inhalation, or direct contact. Alcohol consumption, pesticides in fruits and vegetables, heavy metals in water, and pollutants in air enter your blood and make it impure.
Liver, the largest gland in your body, acts as a purifier for the contaminated blood and also adds certain essential components required for healthy living.
The anti-oxidant action of milk thistle acts in conjunction with liver enzymes to remove harmful free radicals and reactive oxygen species produced as a result of the daily consumption of toxins.
Flavonoids present in milk thistle also prevent the binding of some damaging molecules and drugs to liver cells. Hence, silymarin which is the main flavonoid in milk thistle is used to treat many liver problems like alcoholic liver disease, acute and chronic hepatitis, and toxin-induced liver disease. (1)
Silymarin is also used in other disorders like insulin resistant diabetes mellitus due to its blood sugar lowering and anti-inflammatory action. (2)
2. Protects the gallbladder
Since milk thistle has a protective function in liver cells, it also extends its safeguarding role to other organs like the gallbladder, intestine, kidney, and pancreas.
These organs form the gateway for entry and exit of almost all nutrients and water in your body.
Milk thistle improves bile flow in the bile duct and also has detoxification activity in the gallbladder. This prevents the genesis of cholesterol stones by inhibiting the binding between bile salts and cholesterol (a crucial step in stone formation). (3)
This nutritious food is also useful in preventing kidney and ureteric stones as well.
The National Institute of Health shows that the main extract from milk thistle – silymarin alleviates the symptoms as well as blood glucose to acceptable levels when taken along with conventional hypoglycemic drugs.
Milk thistle’s anti-oxidant action acts in conjunction with improved liver functions to increases insulin release and thus keeping glucose levels in check.
A clinical study on 51 type-2 diabetic patients performed at the University of medicinal plants showed that the group consuming silymarin extract experienced improved glycemic control and higher insulin levels after four months as compared to the control group. (4)
4. Keeps serum cholesterol levels in check
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is known as bad cholesterol as it transports cholesterol from the liver to peripheral tissues causing several problems in the long run.
Long-standing inflammation, endothelial (inner lining of blood vessels) damage, lack of exercise, and smoking increase LDL levels leading to disastrous consequences like coronary heart disease and stroke.
Milk thistle alleviates inflammation, lowers oxidative stress and cleans up your blood, therefore, reducing LDL levels and consequently keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy.
A 2006 study reveals that silymarin (extracted from milk thistle), when taken along with conventional cholesterol-lowering medications like statins, drastically reduces total cholesterol, LDL, and triglyceride levels in the blood. (5)
However, this study was performed on patients already suffering from type-2 diabetes mellitus. Hence, silymarin’s efficacy in improving cardiovascular health in otherwise healthy subjects is still under scrutiny.
5. Prevents the genesis and spread of cancer
Milk thistle contains many flavonoids like silymarin, silybin, silydianin, and silychristin which have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. (6)
These compounds not only remove harmful free radicals (produced by alcohol, drugs, smoking, heavy metals, etc.) but also stimulate protein synthesis, protect against DNA damage, and boost the immune system.
Silymarin also promotes cell renewal and prevents entry of harmful substances into the body cells.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that in addition to protecting the liver, silymarin also inhibits the growth of cancer cells in the prostate, breast, skin, and cervix. (7)
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Biomedical Research showed that silybinin inhibits the growth and proliferation of cancer cells taken from patients of colorectal cancer. (8)
6. Slows down the aging process
Aging occurs due to the insult by accumulating free radicals exerted on various organs like the heart, brain, kidneys, and skin.
These harmful ionic molecules oxidize membrane lipids, denature proteins and break DNA leading to cell death in the long run. This results in the various manifestations of getting old like wrinkles, dark spots, lines, and discoloration.
Milk thistle’s anti-oxidant property allows it to protect our body from the deleterious effects of free radicals, and hence, prevents aging.
An animal study published in Photochemistry and Photobiology revealed that silymarin lowered leukocyte count and protected the skin of mice from UV-induced oxidative stress. (9)
7. Conserves glutathione – a strong anti-oxidant
Glutathione is a potent anti-oxidant present in almost all the cells in your body which protects your cells from ROS (reactive oxygen species) and free radicals.
It is a master anti-oxidant which plays a central role in preventing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and neurodegeneration. (10) The liver is responsible for its regeneration, and hence, its levels fall in the case of liver disease.
Risk factors for depletion of glutathione stores are pollution, toxins, medicines, modern American diet, aging, infection, radiation, and trauma.
Apart from having a weak anti-oxidant activity of its own, milk thistle also enhances the regeneration of milk thistle a great deal by strengthening liver cell walls and supporting their detox functions. (11)
8. Promotes weight loss
If you are looking to shed those few extra pounds, milk thistle is your ideal remedy. A 2016 study published in Pharmaceutical Biology showed that milk thistle consumption caused weight loss in obese mice that were earlier on a high-fat diet.
There was no change in their feeding habits, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels saw a steady decline. (12) If popping pills for something as trivial as weight loss seems impractical to you, you can try out milk thistle tea.
9. Alleviated the symptoms of allergic asthma
Silibinin, a flavonoid in milk thistle has anti-inflammatory properties; thus, it reduces mucus production, respiratory tract swelling and wheezing to a great extent. (13)
In response to an allergen, sensitive individuals form a hypersensitive reaction which not only narrows the airway but is also responsible for producing fluid in your lungs.
All of this can be prevented or at least reduced to a minimum by ingesting milk thistle.
10. Keeps your skin healthy
A large number of people suffer from inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and seborrhoeic dermatitis.
Silibinin extracted from milk thistle alleviated the inflammatory reactions by down-regulating the production of inflammatory cytokines and interleukins. (14)
Milk thistle also endows us with anti-aging and anti-cancer benefits provided we apply it regularly. Since these studies are done on a small time frame with a small sample size, you must take this information with a grain of salt.
How much milk thistle to consume?
Medicinal plants and supplemental food products are not governed by the stringent rules and regulations of the FDA, unlike conventional medicines.
Depending on your ailment, duration of consumption and your weight, the amount of milk thistle that you ingest varies from 20 to 300 milligrams daily.
Make sure the capsules contain at least 80% pure milk thistle extract to improve the potency of your supplements. If each capsule contains about 50-150 milligrams of milk thistle, it will be easier for you to change the dosage according to your needs.
- Acute liver condition – Take 150 mg capsule one to three times a day
- Chronic liver condition – preventive measures – Take 50 to 150 mg capsule once a day
You can make your own milk thistle tea by harvesting this plant in your backyard. Each plant head contains about 190 seeds which can be procured by hanging the plant upside down for a week.
The seeds and leaves are dried and crushed and then added to the other components of your morning tea. In order to increase its shelf life and maintain its nutrient content, you can store the powder in your freezer.
Precautions while consuming milk thistle
Overall, milk thistle is very safe for you provided you aren’t on any medications and are not allergic to it. Its mild laxative action may make you feel uneasy in the beginning, and you may experience diarrhea and gastrointestinal irritation. However, they will ward off with time.
If you have any allergies or if you are taking blood thinners, anti-anxiety medication, cancer chemotherapy, or any other drugs, it’s better to consult your physician before consuming milk thistle products.
Points to take home
Milk thistle, a medicinal herb, has many benefits on your health most of which are attributed to the presence of flavonoids like silymarin and silybinin which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities.
It is responsible for lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels, promoting weight loss, keeping your skin healthy, alleviating the symptoms of asthma, preventing inflammatory bowel diseases, and slowing down the aging process.
The most common use of milk thistle remains to be in the treatment regimen of hepatitis and liver cirrhosis. However, you must keep a watch on some side effects like laxative action, allergy and alteration in the efficacy of certain drugs.