14 Benefits Of Milk Thistle: More Than Just A Herbal Liver Detox

Benefits Of Milk Thistle

If you’ve been suffering from liver problems, you have probably been adviced to use milk thistle to supplement your treatment. For the uninitiated, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a tall herb with large purple flowers and small hard seed-like fruits – called achenes – to which milk thistle owes its medicinal properties. Having been in use as a herbal remedy for over 2000 years, milk thistle is now making a comeback as a popular health aid, and with good reason. Apart from promoting liver function, milk thistle is also used to treat a host of other health issues. Here’s a list of milk thistle benefits.

1. Treats Liver Diseases

Like we mentioned, milk thistle’s claim to fame is its benefits for the liver. According to studies, the seeds of milk thistle carry a powerful antioxidant called silymarin, which is believed to have the potential to improve mild liver diseases. However, the herb might not work as well if you have a severe liver disease like alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis.1 2 3


2. Helps Your Liver Cells Regrow After Injury

[pullquote]For a detoxifying liver cleanse, drink milk thistle tea. You can also add dandelion and turmeric for added liver benefits.[/pullquote]

If you’ve had a liver injury or a partial hepatectomy (surgical removal of a part of the liver), you’d know that your liver has to grow and regain its loss mass to match its pre-surgery size so as to function well. Studies have found that the antioxidant silymarin can help in the regeneration of your liver by stimulating the synthesis of protein – a nutrient that is essential for cell growth. Thus, milk thistle can accelerate the growth of your liver cells and help you regain lost liver mass.4


3. Fights Viral Hepatitis

If you have hepatitis C or liver inflammation due to a viral infection, milk thistle could be of help. Research states that the silymarin in milk thistle can fight the virus and improve the liver condition. One study noted that regular consumption of silymarin significantly reduced the viral load in participants who didn’t respond to conventional therapy. To add to this, in a few participants, the viral load dwindled to undetectable levels within 14 days after silymarin supplementation.5 However, several other studies contradict these results. In fact, some state that milk thistle doesn’t work as an antiviral agent and only reduces any inflammation caused by viruses.6 That doesn’t take away from the fact that milk thistle provides you much-needed relief during this time.

4. Treats Type 2 Diabetes

Patients with type 2 diabetes might benefit from consuming milk thistle regularly. A study conducted on diabetes and alcoholic liver cirrhosis patients showed that a 600 gm daily dose of milk thistle seed extract (silymarin) for a period of 6 months significantly reduced fasting blood glucose, mean daily glucose levels, and also insulin resistance. The participants also reported a 100 percent satisfaction rate with the treatment.7 In one study, diabetic patients who received silymarin treatment for a period of 4 months also observed a reduction in their cholesterol levels.8 Besides this, silymarin is also believed to treat diabetic complications such as diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage) and diabetic nephropathy (kidney damage).


5. Boosts Immunity

If you’ve been falling sick too often of late, you might want to give milk thistle a try. It’s possible that your immune system is not being able to cope with the onslaught of cell-damaging substances called free radicals. Free radicals not only damage white blood cells (immune agents) but also impair the communication between them, hence affecting their functioning. Studies state that the antioxidant properties of milk thistle boost immunity by fighting damage caused by free radicals.9 Besides this, milk thistle is also believed to improve your immune function by increasing the production of white blood cells, which are the cells of your immune system.10

6. Aids Digestion

For centuries, milk thistle has been used to treat diseases of the upper gastrointestinal tract as well as mild digestive problems. While the exact mechanism behind this has not been found, it is believed that the herb promotes the formation of digestive enzymes, reduces any inflammation (such as the kind that occurs during inflammatory bowel disease), and soothes mucous membranes throughout the body. So if you have a sluggish digestive system, you could try consuming milk thistle.11


7. Treats Gallstones

The gallbladder plays an important role in the digestive process by storing bile produced in the liver until it is needed for further digestion of fatty food. And since milk thistle promotes healthy functioning of the liver and the overall digestive system, historically, it was believed to aid in the prevention and treatment of gallstones as well.12 Today, homeopathic practitioners use preparations from the seeds of the herb to treat gallstones.13

8. Prevents Nerve And Brain Disorders

If you have a history of age-related brain disorders in your family, it might be wise to consume milk thistle on a regular basis.

  • Alzheimer’s disease: The silymarin in milk thistle prevents the deposition of protein (amyloid peptides), which is commonly found in Alzheimer’s patients. One study showed that the administration of 70 and 140 mg/kg of silymarin extract once a day for 4 weeks in rats reduced the plaque deposit.14
  • Parkinson’s disease: The glutathione levels in Parkinson’s patients indicate the severity of the condition. And milk thistle is believed to boost glutathione levels and thereby reduce the severity of Parkinson’s.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS): Patients undergoing treatment for multiple sclerosis are advised to consume 80 and 160 mg of silymarin extract about 2–3 times a day to supplement the treatment.15

9. Prevents And Treats Cancer

Silymarin is essentially a mixture of antioxidants called flavonolignans that have anti-tumor properties. They prevent cancer cells from dividing, reproducing, and spreading. Silymarin may also restrict blood supply to cancerous cells and reduce their lifespan. Besides silymarin, milk thistle has a host of other antioxidants like quercetin and kaempferol, which make it a potent anticancer agent.

  • Cervical and breast cancer: A study found that milk thistle can suppress the migration of cervical and breast cancer cells by killing them.16 17
  • Prostate and colorectal cancer: Milk thistle may also fight cancerous prostate and colorectal cells by reducing the blood supplied to them.
  • Skin cancer: Silibinin, the active component of silymarin, is thought to fight skin cancer. Besides its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, silymarin may also protect the skin against cancer by working as a sunscreen when topically applied.18
  • Brain tumor: The silibinin in milk thistle is also believed to slow the progression of Cushing’s disease – a rare form of brain tumor.

Though milk thistle has still not been regarded as a standard cancer treatment, some experts believe that chemotherapy may be more efficient when supplemented with it. There’s evidence that milk thistle helps reduce liver toxicity caused by chemotherapy.19


10. Protects Against Sun Damage

When applied topically, milk thistle is believed to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress caused due to harmful UV rays. This, in turn, might ward off photocarcinogenesis, a complex biochemical process that eventually leads to skin cancer.

But this doesn’t mean you should skimp on your sunscreen. Rather, use milk thistle as a supplement to the sunscreen.20


11. Treats Acne

A study in the Journal of Clinical & Experimental Dermatology Research found that the antioxidant activity of silymarin can ease acne breakouts. The study participants noticed that their acne decreased by 54 percent after 8 weeks of oral supplementation. This could be a result of silymarin’s ability to stabilize certain immune cells that deal with inflammation.21 So, if you’re struggling with breakouts, you could try milk thistle tea or capsules.

12. Relieves Allergies

Allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, is caused by oxidative stress and inflammation. Common symptoms include sneezing, nasal congestion, and itchiness. Needless to say, it isn’t fun!

However, according to research, milk thistle can help manage those symptoms. Researchers found that taking 140 mg of silymarin 3 times a day for 4 weeks can make allergies less severe. So, the next time your allergies act up, consider taking milk thistle with your antihistamines.22

13. Treats Death Cap Mushroom Poisoning

Traditionally, milk thistle was used as an emergency antidote for poisoning by the lethal death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Studies conducted on animals found that the herb’s extract completely counteracts any toxic effects of the mushroom within 10 minutes of ingestion. And, if it’s given within 24 hours, it can significantly reduce any risk of liver damage and even death.23 There’s little chance you’ll find death cap mushroom on your dinner plate, but if you like finding your mushroom out in the wild, keep a strong milk thistle tea handy.

14. May Increase Breast Milk Supply

Milk thistle is believed to increase breast milk supply by working as a galactagogue. However, studies show mixed results. In fact, according to one study, 50 percent of the mothers who consumed silymarin extracts didn’t notice a substantial increase in milk supply and some even reported side effects. So, if you’re a breastfeeding mother, consult your doctor before consuming milk thistle.24 25

Milk Thistle Is Available In Various Forms

Milk thistle is available in the form of capsules of standardized dried herb. However, note that the capsules of silymarin phosphatidylcholine complex may be absorbed by your body better than the standardized form. But if you don’t want to consume silymarin in the form of pills, you can also make your own milk thistle tea.26

[pullquote]Milk thistle and dandelion have potent liver benefits, when taken together. That’s why many liver detox teas and capsules have both! So, if you want better liver benefits, take dandelion with milk thistle.[/pullquote]

Milk Thistle Tea

  • Fill a teabag 1 tbsp powdered milk thistle seeds.
  • Add hot water to a teacup.
  • Dip your teabag into the cup and let it steep for 3 minutes.
  • Add 1/2 tsp honey to mask the bitter flavor.

If you use the milk thistle extract, add 20 drops of the extract to a cup of water and drink it on an empty stomach. You can also choose to add organic or artificial sweeteners to the tea.

A Word Of Caution

Since milk thistle acts on the liver, the site of drug metabolism, it might interact with certain medications. You’d need to consult your doctor before taking this herb if you are on any of the following medications.

  • Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
  • Antihistamines
  • Medications for high cholesterol
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs (blood thinners)
  • Halothane (used during general anesthesia)
  • Phenytoin (an anti-seizure medicine)
  • Antipsychotics (used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder)
  • Cancer medications (such as raloxifene)

If you have an allergy to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, chamomile, yarrow, and daisies, don’t take milk thistle. It’s in the same family as these plants, so it may cause an allergic reaction.27