Yet another promising herb that caught everyone’s interest comes in. Have you heard about milk thistle? Milk thistle is a long biennial herb, which grows up to about 2 meters high and it has milk-white veins of the dark-green leaves toothed with sharp spines. Its flowers are red-purple and bear brown shiny fruits. It is a plant that contains silymarin – considered to be the main component of milk thistle seeds – that is touted for its ability to improve liver function. The fruit and seeds of the milk thistle plant are herbal remedies for some liver problems. It is a native to southern Europe but also is grown in southern Russia, Asia Minor, northern Africa, North and South America and South Australia.
What is Milk Thistle?
The scientific name for milk thistle is silybum marianum. It comes in different names like holy thistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, St. Mary thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, wild artichoke, Mariendistel (German), and Chardon-Marie (French) (1). Its medicinal compound, silymarin, is an antioxidant that protects against cell damage. It also contains four compounds, including silybin (the most active), isosilybin, silychristin, and silydianin (2).
7 Benefits of Milk Thistle
- Protects the liver. The liver is a primary defense against daily toxins. With that being said, it is important that we take care of it. Milk thistle does the job. On one clinical trial on milk thistle or silymarin as a treatment for hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, or bile duct disorders, patients with chronic hepatitis having treatment to boost their immune system, people taking silymarin had fewer symptoms and a better quality of life while earlier studies suggest that it might be helpful in preventing liver inflammation or liver cancer (3). Another study published in the journal Medicine looks at alternative product, silymarin, to determine if it might have a therapeutic effect and improve hepatic enzyme measures. The authors propose that silymarin appears to be able to reinvigorate the liver as shown in the finding based on lower AST and ALT levels in patients who were silymarin-treated compared with controls (4). Silymarin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, which helps it fight the root causes of liver disease (5).
- Digestive health. The digestive system breaks down food and allows the nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream, and then carried to every part of the body (6). Incorporating herbs like milk thistle, for example, can help with digestion. Gas, bloating and indigestion may result due to improper eating habits. The seeds and leaves of milk thistle may be used to address these stomach issues. This herb can be consumed on an empty stomach before your meals for best results. Milk thistle is also known to flush out toxins from your body. Silymarin, its active property, maintains the health of liver cells and neutralizes the effect of toxins (7). It has a digestive “bitter tonic” action that promotes the flow of bile in liver disorders (8).
- Boosts immunity. Maintaining immune system balance is important. It defends and supports each body part from diversified types of viruses. Having some herbs to boost our immunity could help. According to research published in the “Medical Science Monitor”, milk thistle is a very helpful herb that contains stimulatory effect on the immune system as a whole (9). In vitro testing found it to increase lymphocyte proliferation with a direct correlation to the dose of milk thistle given (10). The immunostimulatory effects of milk thistle make it a complementary treatment for cancer and infectious disease (11).
- Improves bone health. Taking care of our bones is always important. Otherwise, weak and fragile bones can cause lifelong disability. It is wise to include herbs in our diet for they can improve bone health. Milk thistle, for one, stimulates bone growth and strength, thus improving your bone health. Its silymarin is a potent antioxidant herb that may modulate multiple genes helping to build bone and prevent bone loss (12). It is also said to delay effects of osteoporosis, a disease brought about by progressive bone loss where it is believed that postmenopausal women may be prone to bone loss (13). Milk thistle prevents this from happening. By stimulating bone mineralization, thistle milk is critical in supporting bone health (14).
- Improves kidney health. Kidney stones are a painful disorder of the urinary tract, where its pain is compared to that of childbirth (15). Herbs are a way to strengthen and tone the body’s systems, thus, may help kidney detox. Milk thistle detoxifies the liver and kidneys and improves their function. Milk thistle’s silymarin, which are made from the seeds of the thistle, has the most active of the group called silybin (16). They are said to protect the liver from damage and work by stopping toxins or free radicals from attaching to the liver cells (17). It is, in fact, used to treat toxic mushroom poisoning, cirrhosis, and hepatitis (18). Recent research has proven beneficial health effects of milk thistle for the kidneys, as well as for the liver (19). According to a German study published in the September 1999 “Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics”, the damaging effects of drugs on kidney cells are lessened or avoided with the help of milk thistle (20).
- Cell repair and growth. Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help the liver repair itself by growing new cells. Through its active property, the silymarin, it encourages liver cell growth, reduces inflammation especially for people with liver inflammation or hepatitis, and contains potent antioxidant effects (21). It helps repair liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances by stimulating protein synthesis (22). Antioxidants are thought to protect body cells from damage caused by a chemical process called oxidation (23). In addition, silymarin has powerful regenerative properties, boosting liver cells’ ability to make new proteins and repair damage before it can spread (24).
- Regulates cholesterol level. High cholesterol can lead to problems with heart health and increase a person’s chance of stroke. A 2006 study suggests milk thistle keeps cholesterol levels down. In the said study, the cholesterol levels among people taking milk thistle to treat diabetes are lower than those taking a placebo (25). Medical research claims that milk thistle, combined with traditional treatment, improves diabetes. Studies also reveal a decrease in blood sugar levels and an improvement in cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes (26).
Final Thought on Milk Thistle
Milk thistle has a wide range of health benefits. It is also generally regarded as safe. However due to its effect on the liver it, caution is a must. Seek advice from a healthcare provider if you are taking certain medications and especially if you are pregnant.