Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is a spiky plant, native to the Mediterranean. It has bright green leaves decorated with milky white veins, about one to two meters high and red flowers that have bitter tasting seeds. Milk thistle has been used for 2000 years as a remedy for a large variety of diseases, with particular benefit to the liver. Herbalists use the entire plant: stem, leaves, flowers and seeds. It is widely used throughout Europe and Central Asia and cultivated worldwide.
For centuries, milk thistle has one of the most popular herbs for protecting and cleansing the liver. Herbalists also use milk thistle as a remedy for kidney and bladder irritation and skin inflammation. It shows promise as a treatment for diabetes, although this use is based upon anecdotal evidence and studies have been limited.
Milk thistle’s active ingredients are a group of antioxidant compounds that together form silymarin. Silymarin is often called milk thistle extract because, according to the “Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine,” its seeds contain about 70 percent of the phytonutrient. This component affects the liver as follows: first, silymarin inhibits the effect of toxins on liver cells by reducing cell membrane permeability. Second, it stimulates the regeneration of damaged liver tissue.
Helps Liver Function
Antioxidant effects – When the liver is overloaded — e.g. with a diet heavy in saturated fat and sweets, alcohol, and smoking — it is exposed to free radicals, dangerous unstable molecules. The silymarin from milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant, neutralizing these harmful effects which may eventually lead to an abnormal fat load, necrosis and ultimately kill liver cells.
Reduces cholesterol – The liver serves to decompose and eliminate unnecessary cholesterol. If the liver is unhealthy, the body’s total cholesterol level increases and the excess is deposited on blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis (artery disease), as well as aggravating cirrhosis. Recent research shows that silymarin stimulates the ability of the liver to metabolize fat.
Stimulates digestion and detoxifies the body – The leaves and, in particular, the fruit, of milk thistle stimulate the digestion process. They have a detoxifying effect on the body after ingestion.
Decongestion of the liver – Toxic substances can enter the body by eating foods containing pesticides and chemical additives, breathing pollutants and applying chemically based cosmetics to the skin. Milk thistle repairs the damaging effect that these substances have on the liver.
Reduces Toxins, Virus, Cancer and More
Mushroom poisoning –Milk thistle has been used both as an antidote and as a preventive measure for mushroom poisoning. Studies on animals showed that the milk thistle counteracts the toxic effects of the death cap mushrooms when it is taken within 10 minutes of poisoning. If milk thistle is used up to 24 hours after ingestion it still decreases the chances of death and damage to the liver. Studies in Germany, the United States, Italy and Austria have shown that milk thistle is one of the most powerful anti-toxins, helping the body to withstand the strongest poisons – from toxic mushrooms to industrial gases and heavy metals. Note should be an intravenous treatment, oral administration does not seem to work.
Cirrhosis – According to the Mayo Clinic, many studies have found that this herb improves liver functioning and decreases mortality for patients with liver cirrhosis. However, there has been some concern about the small sample size of these studies.
Hepatitis A, B and C – For chronic hepatitis, silymarin from the milk thistle can reduce inflammation and stimulate cell regeneration where cells have been destroyed by the hepatitis viruses.
Jaundice, liver failure –Milk thistle prevents the accumulation of toxins in the liver, promotes liver cell activity and stimulates the elimination of toxins from liver cells. In Europe, the herb has clearance from the German Commission E, a leading health organization, for the treatment of liver and gallbladder disorders.
Liver Disease from Alcohol – Milk thistle is often suggested as a treatment for alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis as has it helps heal and regenerate damaged liver cells.
Biliary dyskinesia, biliary stones –Milk thistle has a strong stimulating effect on the production and release of bile, preventing the accumulation of gall bladder stones and reducing any inflammation. Herbalists use it for a treatment in dyspepsia, a digestive disorder than can cause pain and flatulence.
Skin cancer – Clinical studies have found that milk thistle inhibits the growth of lines and kills certain cancer cell lines. However, due to the lack of human studies regarding milk thistle’s effect on cancer, the National Cancer Institute has said that there is insufficient evidence to recommend it as a cancer treatment.
Potential Side Effects
Vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, bloating, abdominal pain or loss of appetite – As Milk thistle is a natural laxative, it can affect digestion. If you experience any of these side effects, stop taking the herb and talk to a doctor.
Allergic reaction – Milk thistle can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to plants from the family Asteraceae and Compositae, such as rust (ragweeds), marigolds or daisies. In extreme cases, it can cause anaphylaxis.
Drug Interactions – Milk thistle may interact with certain medications, including those treating allergy, anxiety, high cholesterol, blood thinners and some cancer drugs.
Not for Pregnancy or Hypertension – Milk thistle is not recommended for those suffering from hypertension, pregnant women or the women who are breastfeeding.
For thousands of years, Milk thistle has been used to cleanse the liver. Its active ingredient, silymarin, is a natural anti-oxidant that flushes out toxins from the liver, gallbladder and kidney and helps restore damaged cells. Milk thistle is a natural anti-inflammatory and acts as a natural body cleanser. It has a low toxicity and is well tolerated by participants in clinical trials. However, some side effects are possible, especially if you are on prescription drugs, so talk to your doctor or naturopathic doctor before taking milk thistle.