Our body is uniquely equipped to handle the literally thousands of different toxins we encounter daily through environmental pollution, processed foods, pharmaceuticals and other sources. One of the most important organs that deals with these toxins is the liver. And one plant, the Milk Thistle, often regarded as unwanted weeds in the garden, is highly beneficial for helping our liver detoxify.
What is Milk Thistle?
Milk Thistle is an herbaceous plant, with purple bully tubular flowers. It is an edible plant, originally found in southern Europe, southern Russia, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and has also been naturalized to North and South America. Almost all parts of the plant can be eaten without any poisoning phenomena. The leaves of the thistle have caused the name ‘Milk Thistle” for two reasons: they are decorated with white stripes, and contain a white milky juice.
Milk Thistle has been used for over 2,000 years as a natural treatment, mainly for the treatment of liver and gallbladder disease. It was also used for detoxification and cleansing the liver, spleen and kidneys. The seeds were eaten by European women in order to ensure healthy milk production. Today, Milk Thistle has a great reputation with regard to the effectiveness of many liver and gallbladder diseases and poisoning.
Active Ingredients in Milk Thistle
The main active ingredients are flavonolignans (4-6%) such as silybin, isosilybin, silydianin and silychristin (collectively known as silymarin); apigenin, silybonol, taxifolin, phytosterols, fatty oils (20-30%) and proteins (1,2).
Silybin is the most active form, and is thus the main cause of the beneficial effects of silymarin (3). The plant also contains flavonoids, including quercetin and camphorol, and base oils such as linoleic acid and oleic acid, betaine, stigmasterol, sitosterol, plant glue, vitamin C, E and K. Due to the ability to characterize the active ingredients, the powerful active ingredients are isolated from the seeds (4).
How Does Milk Thistle Work?
Milk Thistle is especially popular because it protects the liver and improves liver function. There are several activities that explain the therapeutic effect on the liver.
First, silymarin can alter the structure of the hepatocyte cell membrane of the liver cells, so that toxic substances cannot penetrate into the nucleus. It also stimulates nuclear polymerase A, resulting in increased ribosomal protein synthesis. This stimulates the liver’s regenerative ability and allows new hepatocytes to be created.
There is also evidence that shows that silymarin has anti-fibrotic, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating effects that are also useful in liver disease (5, 6). Both silymarin and silibinin inhibit beta-glucuronidase, which protects the liver from damage and even against colon cancer. Damaged liver cells can regenerate by this mechanism of action (7).
Milk Thistle Benefits
Even though Milk Thistle is known for its beneficial effect on the liver, research has confirmed the mechanisms of action and therapeutic value of Milk Thistle in a wide range of non-liver-related conditions (3).
Milk Thistle helps:
- lower high cholesterol levels by lowering inflammation
- clean the blood and prevent oxidative stress damage within the arteries (8)
- improve total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides levels compared to levels before taking Milk Thistle (9)
- protect the kidneys from damage
- protect the kidneys from harmful medicines such as acetaminophen, cisplatin and vincristin
- regenerate the kidney and liver cells (9)
- lower insulin resistance and reduce blood glucose and fat levels in diabetes patients (9), due to the antioxidant effect
- reduce oxidative stress caused by pancreatic beta dysfunction (10)
- reduce risk of prostate cancer with its anti-proliferative effects on androgen-sensitive prostate cancer cells (11, 12, 13)
Health Benefits of Milk Thistle And Cancer
Milk Thistle has been reported to be beneficial for reducing the hardening and narrowing of the arteries and prevent gallstones. In large doses, Milk Thistle has shown to be protective of the kidneys from damage during chemotherapy.
It is also beneficial in the treatment of liver cancer by protecting the immune system cell called Kupffer cells, in fighting pathogens, toxins and other foreign matters that enter the liver.
Effective Forms Of Milk Thistle Supplements
There are two major ways in which Milk Thistle can be ingested, either ingesting the pure seed or as an extract such as a pill or capsule.
Since the working nutrients in the seed are very poorly soluble in water, Milk Thistle tea is not such a good idea. It does not contain the maximum active ingredient. It is better to grind the seeds, which can then be added to food.
As a nutritional supplement, Milk Thistle can often be found in combination with other nutrients or plants like dandelion.
The most common form of Milk Thistle supplements is in the form of essential oils. Extracted from the seeds, the oil contains sterols, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin E, giving it nutritive and skin protective properties (14).
Milk Thistle is categorized as a dietary supplement, meaning that there is no strict oversight from the government regarding the quality of the products. Thus, to ensure consistency throughout the herbal supplement market, milk thistle is available in a standardized form (3).
The standardized form of Milk Thistle should at least contain 75% or more silymarin. It is then recommended to take 3x per day 200 mg of the active ingredient. It is important to keep in mind that when you are comparing different Milk Thistle products, to determine what the concentration is of the active ingredients. Read the label carefully, not only for the right quality, but also for the correct dosage of that particular product.
Overall, Milk Thistle is a safe and valuable herb that protects and restores the liver. The liver has a lot to endure in daily life. Stress, pollution, chemicals: it’s all a challenge for the liver. Everything we can do to improve the liver’s recovery ability to cope with these influences is beneficial.
No side effects are known for crude preparation of Milk Thistle when used as food. In the standardized extract with high concentrations of silymarin, a slight laxative effect has occasionally been observed.
If you are on any medication, take Milk Thistle at least two hours apart from your medication.