Milk Thistle is perhaps most famous for its restorative effects on the liver. It is the flavonoid “silymarin” that is thought to be responsible for its beneficial effect on this important organ. Silymarin is a group of compounds – silibinin, silidianin and silicristin – which work together to provide many health benefits, especially protection of the liver.
It is anti-fibrotic (meaning it prevents tissue scarring), and is thought to act as a “toxin blockade agent” by inhibiting the binding of toxins to the liver cell membrane receptors. This prevents viral toxins and other toxic substances getting into the liver cells and damaging them, whilst also aiding in the removal of these harmful substances from the cells.
Numerous studies have shown that Milk Thistle can reduce liver damage caused by alcohol overuse, drug abuse and diseases such as hepatitis. It helps to regenerate the liver, with research suggesting that it aids the liver in returning healthy function to those recovering from alcohol and/or drug addiction – in addition, it was observed that the mood and energy levels of recovering persons was improved.
Milk Thistle was also found to counter other adverse side effects of alcohol on the liver such as; nausea, appetite loss and alcohol induced cirrhosis. Clinical studies have shown that silymarin “improves liver function tests and protects liver cells from oxidative damage in people with alcohol related liver disease”.
Whether it’s used as a tonic for “one too many” the night before, or as an aid to a more serious condition, Milk Thistle is a powerful liver detoxifier.
Silymarin is a powerfully antioxidant flavonoid complex, it helps to boost glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD) – two of the body’s master antioxidants. One study found that silymarin increased glutathione content in the intestines by up to 50%, with this increased glutathione helping to protect the intestines from the inflammatory damage that can lead to ulcers and colitis.
Considered to be 10 times as potent as vitamin E, silymarin increases the activity of SOD in red and white blood cells, increasing oxygenation and immunity – especially in those suffering from liver disease.
Milk Thistle directly scavenges free radicals, chelates free iron and copper and prevents free radical formation by improving the integrity of mitochondria (power generators of the cells).
The effects of Milk Thistle on the kidneys has been said to closely mirror the herbs effects on the liver. Silymarin concentrates in kidney cells where it helps to repair and regenerate protein enzymes and DNA, with one study indicating it increased kidney cell replication by 25% - 30% over control groups.
Another study suggests that silymarin improves blood and urine markers associated with diabetic kidney disease – however further research is necessary before a conclusion can be made.
Milk Thistle is well documented for increasing bile production from the liver. This additional bile helps to protect the intestinal lining, aids in the breakdown of fat in the small intestine and alleviates intestinal inflammation, making it useful in the management of symptoms of inflammatory bowel disorders.
Milk Thistle is able to promote healthy digestive function by helping with enzyme formation, decreasing inflammation and improving the health of the mucous membranes in the body. This can reduce inflammatory stress in the bile duct, inhibit the formulation of gall stones and improve the overall function of the gall bladder by allowing for complete bile release.
Folklore and history
With a history stretching back over 2000 years, the Milk Thistle herb has a myriad of health benefits. The Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides first described its healing properties in 40 AD, using the seeds as a remedy for infants and for those bitten by serpents.
In herbal medicine, Milk Thistle is considered a hepatic (liver tonic), galactogogue (promotes lactation), demulcent (anti-inflammatory, protects mucous membranes) and a cholagogue (stimulates the flow of bile from the liver).
Milk Thistle may interfere with certain medications including; Allergy drugs, high cholesterol medication, anti-anxiety drugs and some blood thinners. Please speak to your healthcare provider if you are taking any of these medications before using Milk Thistle.
Can cause an allergic reaction. Occasionally people report a laxative effect and/or an upset stomach.