What is Milk Thistle?
Milk Thistle is an herbal supplement that detoxifies and protects vital liver functions and more.
Milk thistle has been used for over 2,000 years as a natural treatment for liver disorders. The plant is known in scientific circles as the Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertner (syn. Cardous marianus), but it is more commonly known as “milk thistle,” “St. Mary Thistle,” “Holy Thistle” and “Lady’s Thistle.” It is an herbaceous annual or biennial plant belonging to the Asteraceae family that can grow to be ten feet tall with flowers that are red and purple in color.
Milk thistle gets its name from the milky white fluid that comes from the plant’s leaves when they are crushed. It is native to southern Europe, southern Russia, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and has also been naturalized to North and South America.
Europeans were among the first to use milk thistle seeds as an herbal treatment for liver disorders. However, the plant’s remedial capabilities have been known since ancient times.
What are the Benefits of Milk Thistle?
Over the past forty years, intensive chemical, pharmacological and clinical research has confirmed the mechanisms of action and therapeutic value of milk thistle in a wide range of human liver-related and non-liver-related conditions. Literally hundreds of modern research studies have confirmed the remarkable ability of milk thistle to protect the liver and the body against virtually all types of damage.
Today, milk thistle is still one of the most commonly used medicinal plants in the world and is also the number one recommended natural herb for liver health. In fact, in Europe, milk thistle is a prescribed medication. The milk thistle extract is prescribed to treat mushroom poisoning, alcoholic cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis, drug and alcohol-induced liver damage and acute viral hepatitis, just to name a few.
Milk thistle extract is used to maintain liver health and to protect the liver from the effects of toxins such as alcohol, a polluted environment or workplace, and a host of liver related diseases.
Liver related conditions indicating the use of milk thistle are varied, including, but not limited to:
Chronic active hepatitis
Drug and alcohol induced liver damage
Acute viral hepatitis
Fatty liver, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
Fibrosis and Cirrhosis
Hepatic toxicity caused by steroid usage
Environmental sensitivities and toxins
A medical condition that necessitates the use of hepatotoxic medications
Regular moderate-to-heavy alcohol use
Additionally, experimental and clinical studies suggest that milk thistle extracts also have the following non-liver related benefits:
Lowers cholesterol levels, which benefits the heart
Reduces the growth of cancer cells in breast, lung, colon, prostate, cervical and renal cancers
Functions as a therapeutic agent for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease
Improves blood sugar levels
Contains numerous anti-aging properties
Reduces cell damage caused by radiation and chemotherapy treatments
Supplements sunscreen protection and may be useful against multiple types of skin disease
Works as a free radical scavenger and powerful antioxidant
Reduces hot flashes and other related menopausal symptoms
Helps with intestinal / indigestion issues
Reduces the effects of deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning
How Does Milk Thistle Work?
Milk thistle seeds contain a bioflavonoid complex known as silymarin. Silymarin, which is the active ingredient in milk thistle, is simply the purified extract of the fruits (seeds) of the milk thistle plant. It is responsible for the main medical benefits of the milk thistle plant, and it is made up of three main flavonoids:
silybin – also know as silibinin
silydianin – also known as silidianin
silychristin – also know as silicristin
Silybin makes up 50% – 70% of silymarin and has been shown in clinical studies to be the most biologically active and beneficial constituent of the milk thistle extract, silymarin.
Double blind studies on the effect of milk thistle on toxic liver damage (mostly alcohol-related), chronic liver disease and disease caused by certain drugs have been reviewed by medical experts. The experts all concluded that milk thistle is an extremely therapeutically useful medicinal plant product that stabilizes the cell membrane and stimulates protein synthesis while accelerating the process of regeneration in damaged liver tissue. These effects are important in the therapeutic efficacy of milk thistle.
According to other studies, milk thistle may protect the cells of the liver by blocking the entrance of harmful toxins and helping remove these toxins from liver cells. As with other flavonoids, milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant which works to maintain health and energy by protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and lipid peroxidation, which can injure healthy cells and tissues. Just as grapes and red wine, for example, are touted as excellent sources of antioxidants, milk thistle also contains the properties needed to offer the body the same antioxidant benefits.
What are the Side Effects of Milk Thistle?
One of the best things about milk thistle is its gentle nature. Compared to many other supplements and herbal remedies that bring with them side effects such as headaches, virtually all parts of the milk thistle plant have been used with no reports of toxicity. Adverse effects in clinical and lab studies related specifically to the seed extract (silymarin) are also virtually nonexistent, although it may have a mild and short-lived laxative effect for some people. Milk thistle can be used safely and effectively by a wide range of people, including pregnant and nursing women.