Milk thistle (silymarin) is a flowering herb that is related to other medicinal plants such as Echinacea, Calendula, Grindelia, and Yarrow. It originates from the Mediterranean and is known among botanists as Silybum Marianum of the Asteraceae family.
The rest of the people call it so many different ways that we won’t have enough space to list them all: Mediterranean thistle, cardus marianus, milk thistle, blessed milk thistle, Marian thistle, Mary’s thistle, St. Mary’s thistle, etc. Most of these names are inspired by the legend that the white veins on the leaves of the plant appeared because of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
The history of milk thistle can be traced back to Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Even then, the plant was famous as a herb for the liver. It has been used to treat a number of liver conditions such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and jaundice, and to protect the liver from toxins, including snakebites, insect stings, mushroom poisoning, and alcohol.
Later, the herb made its way from the Mediterranean and Europe, reaching as far as China and India. Numerous sources testify that milk thistle has had and still has an important place in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. They recommend it not only as a “liver tonic”, but also for stimulating breast milk, for depression and especially against green fly agaric poisoning – the cause of most deaths after mushroom consumption.
What does milk thistle contain and how does it help?
Analyzes of the whole plant show that it contains dozens of bioactive substances and nutrients. But there is one main active ingredient and that is silymarin. It contains 7 flavonolignans unique to milk thistle: silibinin A and B, isosilibinin A and B, silichristin, isosilichristin and silydianin. Commonly marketed milk thistle extract is an alcoholic extract of milk thistle seeds that contains between 65% and 80% silymarin.
The mechanisms behind many of its traditional uses are not well understood. So far, it is known that the flavonolignans in silymarin (and especially silibinin) stimulate protein synthesis in liver cells and help their recovery after damage. Studies show that taking silymarin can block the action of the enzyme xanthine oxidase, which is a source of free radicals and oxidative stress in the body. There are reports of its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
Because of these characteristics and due to mechanisms yet to be studied, milk thistle may have a number of uses, from the most popular herb for protecting and restoring the liver, to a nutritional supplement for bone health, to an effective acne treatment. Now we will tell you in more detail about each of them.
Milk thistle protects the liver.
Milk thistle is truly one of the most effective herbs for the liver. It is often used as adjunctive therapy by people with liver damage resulting from diseases such as cirrhosis, fatty liver, hepatitis and even liver cancer. A number of studies have shown improvement in liver function in people with liver disease taking a milk thistle extract supplement. Their results suggest that the herb may reduce liver inflammation and damage.
The herb is also used to protect the liver from toxins such as alpha-amanitin, which is produced by the green fly agaric and is considered the most toxic substance in the mushroom kingdom.
Although milk thistle extract is one of the most effective complementary therapies for people with liver problems, there is currently no evidence that it can have a preventive effect against any of these conditions. For now, the only “trick” for the purpose remains a healthy lifestyle, safe sex, vaccinations and avoiding food and drink of questionable quality and the abuse of drugs (such as paracetamol).
It can slow the aging of the brain.
Milk thistle has been used as a traditional remedy for the prevention and treatment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s for over 2,000 years. Today, science confirms its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes it a potential neuroprotectant and a promising agent to combat the decline of brain function with advancing age.
Some studies have shown that milk thistle extract successfully reduces the number of amyloid plaques in the brains of animals with Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid plaques are clumps of protein that can accumulate between neurons as we age. Their high number is one of the main signs of Alzheimer’s, and it is believed that reducing them can slow down the progression of the severe disease.
So far, there are no clinical trials to confirm the effect of milk thistle in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. It is not known whether its active components cross the blood-brain barrier in sufficient quantities and what doses will be needed for a possible therapeutic effect.
It has potential benefits for bone health
Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by a progressive decrease in bone density. It usually develops slowly over years, and as a result, bones become brittle with even the slightest shock.
In in-vitro experiments and animal studies, milk thistle stands out as a good agent for stimulating bone mineralization and protecting against bone loss. Therefore, the researchers suggest that the extract may be an adequate measure to prevent or delay bone loss in menopausal women. Clinical trials of this hypothesis have yet to be conducted.
Does it help treat cancer more effectively with fewer side effects?
It is hypothesized that the antioxidant properties of silymarin may have an anti-cancer effect complementary to the main treatment. Some animal studies show that milk thistle extract can reduce the side effects of therapy. Others suggest that it can enhance the effects of chemotherapy against some types of cancer and even kill cancer cells on its own.
All of these data are of questionable clinical value due to the nature of the trials. No effect has yet been established in humans.
Stimulates breast milk in a natural way
Milk thistle is one of the two herbs recommended as galactagogues – breast milk stimulants after childbirth. The other is fenugreek. The traditional method of taking milk thistle is 1–3 grams of crushed seeds or the same amount steeped in hot water and taken three times a day. Although applicable at home, these methods do not guarantee intake of a sufficient (and standard) dose of active substance, as well as its absorption.
On the other hand, there is a clinical trial with 420 mg of micronized silymarin in which breast milk production increased by 64% on day 30 and by 86% on day 63 of taking the extract. The reliability of these data is high due to the presence of a placebo control group and the absence of a conflict of interest in the funding of the experiment. This effect is thought to be due to higher serum levels of the hormone prolactin, which have been reported after silymarin in other studies.
Milk thistle is effective for acne
Acne vulgaris is a chronic skin condition characterized by overproduction of sebum, pore clogging and chronic inflammation of the hair follicle. The inflammatory component of acne is believed to be the negative impact of free radicals on skin oils. Recent studies have found that acne sufferers are more susceptible to this effect due to an overload of their antioxidant defense systems. Therefore, various exogenous antioxidants have recently received increasing attention as a potential way to address this common problem.
Such an antioxidant with a pronounced anti-inflammatory effect is milk thistle, and its action has been confirmed by a clinical study. In it, participants took 210 milligrams of silymarin daily for 8 weeks, and the result was 53% fewer acne lesions.
Contributes to lower blood sugar levels in diabetes
Milk thistle may be a useful adjunct in the management of type 2 diabetes. It has been found that one of the active substances in it can work in a similar way to some diabetes drugs – improving insulin sensitivity and reducing blood sugar levels.
A 2016 scientific review found that regularly taking silymarin supplements had significantly lower levels of serum glucose, cholesterol and HbA1c, a marker of blood sugar control. In addition, it has been discovered that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of sea buckthorn can benefit diabetics in reducing the risk of complications such as various kidney damage.
And is it good for the heart?
It is possible that milk thistle reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases because of its property to lower LDL or the so-called. bad cholesterol. But so far, the only evidence of such an effect comes from studies with diabetics. People with diabetes often suffer from elevated cholesterol levels, and it is not known whether the effect of silymarin will be identical in patients with other diseases or healthy people.
Milk thistle can be combined with cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins. In such a scenario, it may be beneficial by preventing elevated liver enzymes, a common side effect of statins and other drugs.
Possible effect in indigestion (dyspepsia)
The European Medicines Agency’s monograph on milk thistle mentions the traditional use of the herb to relieve dyspepsia and other digestive problems of liver origin.
Many popular heartburn products (e.g. Iberogast) contain milk thistle extract as the main ingredient and are clinically proven to be effective. Bitter herbs such as milk thistle are traditionally used to stimulate the secretion of gastric juices and digestive enzymes and activate the vagus nerve, which innervates multiple organs in the abdominal cavity.
But for now, there is a lack of research to confirm that milk thistle is effective against dyspepsia and heartburn when used alone.
How is milk thistle taken?
Usual doses of milk thistle extract vary by purpose. Traditional use against dyspepsia and digestive disorders relies on daily doses of 12–15 grams of dried milk thistle seeds. Often in home recipes, a tea of 3.5 grams of crushed seeds is used, infused with 150 ml of boiling water for 10–15 minutes, and the resulting decoction is taken 3–4 times a day. It is important to know that taking silymarin in tea form may not be effective because the compound is extremely poorly soluble in water.
In the scientific literature, the effective dose of silymarin (standardized milk thistle extract) for various liver conditions ranges from 200 to 400 mg/day. One of the tested protocols in liver cirrhosis is 3 daily intakes of 140 mg of silymarin. Acne is positively affected at 210 mg/day.
Is milk thistle safe?
Yes, milk thistle and its extracts are considered safe when taken orally. Even at very high doses taken over a long period of time, only 1% of people experience side effects – usually diarrhea and much less commonly nausea, bloating, change in bowel habits, gas, etc.
Milk thistle is considered safe in doses up to 420 mg taken orally several times a day for up to 41 months.
Could milk thistle be unsuitable for me?
Although the intake of milk thistle is associated with a low risk of side effects, there are several groups of patients who should approach it with special care:
Pregnant women: There is currently no data on the safety of milk thistle and its extracts in pregnant women, so the usual advice for them is to avoid it.
Allergic: milk thistle may cause a reaction in people allergic to the Asteraceae family.
Diabetics and hypoglycemics: the blood sugar-lowering effect of milk thistle may put these people at risk for serum glucose levels that are too low.
Other: since milk thistle may have estrogen-like effects, patients with estrogen-dependent diseases should consult their doctor before taking. These are mostly women with fibroid tumors of the uterus, endometriosis, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
In any case, it is advisable to consult a doctor before starting to take a silymarin supplement to rule out the possibility of side effects and interactions with certain medications. If you found this article useful and you are looking for a quality solution with an optimal dose of milk thistle extract, you can check out our recommended Livuron Forte and Livuron Hepa, in which the action of silymarin is enhanced by uridine monophosphate and choline.