Milk Thistle 101: A Guide to the Benefits

10 min read

For more than 2,000 years, milk thistle has been used as a medicinal herb in traditional wellness practices.

If you're like most people, you've probably seen milk thistle tea somewhere in the health aisle, and have an idea it's good for your liver.

But did you know that the plant has been used to support liver health for over 2,000 years? (After all, humans have been drinking wine for almost 10,000.)

What is milk thistle?

Milk thistle is a plant, native to southern Europe and Asia, but today can be found all over the world. It is also known as Saint Mary’s thistle, holy thistle, and blessed thistle.

Apart from its famously milk white sap, the plant is also recognizable by its bright purple flowers and pale green leaves.

The legend behind its white sap comes from the story of the Virgin Mary, who nursed baby Jesus under milk thistle leaves. A drop of Mary’s milk fell and caused the white veins on the milk thistle leaves - which is also how milk thistle got its nickname.

Milk thistle thrives in dry and rocky soils, but has a preference for sunny or lightly shaded areas. The flowers are prickly to the touch, and each flower can produce 200 seeds.

As an edible plant, milk thistle stalks, leaves, roots, and flowers can be eaten. The root can be eaten raw or cooked, and the same applies to the leaves. Because the leaves are sharp, it is recommended that the leaf-spines are first removed. Some people even call milk thistle an excellent substitute for spinach due to its taste and texture.

Milk thistle seeds can also be roasted and prepared the same way coffee beans are processed, and of course the leaves can be prepared as a tea (hangover cure, anyone?).

What is the history of milk thistle?

Milk thistle has been consistently recommended by physicians throughout history, and for more than just drinking related ailments.

In Ancient Greece, the physician and botanist Dioscorides was the first to describe the therapeutic properties of milk thistle, documenting its use as a snakebite antidote.

In 1597, John Gerard recorded that milk thistle was “the best remedy against melancholy diseases,” believing that milk thistle improved mental health. Interestingly, a small study completed on patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder showed improvement in their condition after consuming milk thistle leaf extract. In addition, English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper first noted that milk thistle supported normal functioning of the liver.

Milk thistle seeds produce its powerful extract, which is rich in health-promoting nutrients, including fatty acids, flavonoids, antioxidants, and linoleic acid.

Milk thistle extract supplements are typically used to support blood sugar levels already within a normal range, digestive health, and liver cleansing and detox.

What can milk thistle do for you?

Although milk thistle has been used for thousands of years as a health agent, it wasn’t until the 1960s that European clinical studies began examining it for modern-day health and wellness purposes.

Milk thistle for liver health

Silymarin is the most powerful flavonoid in milk thistle. Known as a hepatoprotective, silymarin protects against liver damage. Flavonoids, in turn, are chemicals that help plants grow. Flavonoids are also one of the main constituents in fruits and vegetables that make them good for you and nourish the body with antioxidants.

Milk thistle is also being explored by researchers for its potential to relieve symptoms of metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease. Obesity, insulin resistance, and excess belly fat all contribute to fatty liver disease.

Milk thistle for poison control

Milk thistle has an impressive track record when it comes to treating mushroom poisoning - not a typical health concern, admittedly, but extremely handy when relevant.

Death caps are one of the deadliest mushrooms in the world, and inexperienced campers often confuse them with edible varities.

Modern doctors - like their ancient predecessors - [will use silibinin]((, extracted from milk thistle, to prevent the mushroom's toxins from damaging the victim's liver.

Exploring milk thistle for cancer treatment

Milk thistle is also being explored for cancer treatments.

Although the scientific community awaits a breakthrough with milk thistle, the research shows it does not interfere negatively with chemotherapy drugs, as reported by the American Cancer Society. In addition, they suggested that milk thistle could relieve inflammation in the liver, a side effect of chemotherapy.

Today’s research demonstrates a lot of promise in clinical studies and laboratory studies as to what the active ingredients in milk thistle can do. However, many results regarding the efficacy of milk thistle are mixed, so it is best to talk to a licensed medical practitioner about taking a milk thistle supplement.

Milk thistle for liver detox

Milk thistle has been used for centuries as a liver and gallbladder tonic. The liver is the body‘s largest internal organ and is responsible for detoxifying the body by processing chemicals and waste. It is involved in more than 500 biological functions, including filtering blood from the digestive tract before sending it to the rest of the body. In short, the liver plays a key role in overseeing the metabolic processes of the body by detoxifying, cleansing, synthesizing constituents, and producing bile to aid digestion. As the site of so much toxicity, cleansing the liver may help improve energy levels. Milk thistle is known to have liver cleansing properties.

According to the Global Healing Center, milk thistle helps support the liver by fighting toxins that make the liver swell. In addition, it may increase glutathione levels and encourage normal liver function as a super antioxidant. Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant made up of three amino acids: glutamine, glycine and cysteine. Glutathione is also known as the “ultimate antioxidant” and serves as a crucial mechanism in defending the body against degenerative diseases. Silymarin amplifies glutathione production to protect your body against toxins.

Milk thistle for weight loss

Our modern-day lifestyle is overwhelming to the liver. More than ever, the body is bombarded with toxins from food, compromised air and water quality, exhaust fumes and other pollution, and even our water. Many people are also overworked, stressed, and tired. As a result, the liver is working harder than ever. This stress also makes it difficult to lose or maintain weight.

On its own, milk thistle is not likely to make the body burn fat or inhibit the appetite to spurn weight loss. Instead, it helps digestion, which in turn may lead to supporting body composition goals. This happens by maintaining the liver’s process. When the liver is bogged down with stress, it may negatively impact digestion. In particular, patients with cirrhosis of the liver often display digestive problems.

It is also worth noting that milk thistle has been shown to inhibit fat cells in lab cultures; however, these results are still widely inconclusive.

Milk thistle for the aging brain

The World Health Organization states that 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, with nearly 10 million new cases diagnosed every year. It is easy to see why people are searching for natural solutions to support cognitive health.

Milk thistle has demonstrated promise for assisting with age-related disease, according to a 2015 study. Another study from 2014 recommended milk thistle as a supplement for Alzheimer’s disease after it was demonstrated that silymarin improved the cognitive health of animal test subjects.

Milk thistle for bone health

Most people think of calcium and Vitamin D when they think about optimal support for bone health and osteoporosis protection. Milk thistle has been studied to explore its relationship to bone health.

The benefit for our bones caused by milk thistle is the result of its healthy impact on the liver. Bone loss is typically caused by a body that is too acidic, meaning the pH balance is off. When this occurs, the body leeches valuable minerals from the bones. The liver plays an important role in balancing pH, because it is a filter for toxins and waste. Some studies have shown that milk thistle delays or prevents bone loss in postmenopausal women.

Milk thistle for acne

Unfortunately, acne causes many people great insecurity about their appearance. Yet acne is the most prevalent skin condition plaguing adolescents and adults all over the world. Acne occurs when an overproduction of sebum (an oily substance that moisturizes skin) combines with dead skin cells and bacteria to block pores. As a result, blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts caused by acne may occur. There is a huge market for acne products, because most people are desperate to get rid of acne or keep it at bay. Unfortunately, many of these products can lead to further harm of the skin.

Surprisingly, milk thistle is an herb that is gentle enough on acne to soothe the skin and keep it radiant and smooth. Silymarin’s antioxidant properties help fight damaging free radicals that hurt skin and cause acne to form. The anti-inflammatory properties of milk thistle may help soothe inflamed skin and calm redness that occurs during an acne breakout. That is one reason milk thistle extract is used as an herbal ingredient in many skin care products.

Milk thistle extract can also be used topically to protect against free-radical damage. Milk thistle extract in skin care may reduce the appearance of age spots, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, and result in an improved complexion.

Which milk thistle should I take?

Finding the most potent and pure milk thistle on the market today is a challenge. With transparency about where our herbs are grown, you can trust Care/of Milk Thistle for the highest potency and superior results.

Our milk thistle is harvested in Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany, where it has been planted since the Middle Ages. The flower is farmed for its seeds, which contain silymarin, a powerful flavonoid. Silymarin is best known for its antioxidant support.

Our milk thistle is produced using a gentle extraction method that avoids commonly used harsh solvents - eliminating the use of chemicals that are harmful to the environment and people. Upon completing our extraction process, the milk thistle is dried and analyzed before being shipped to the United States for testing and encapsulation.

Care/of Milk Thistle delivers 300 mg of pure milk thistle herb to your body and is suitable for vegans. It is also a non-GMO, gluten-free supplement, because we value purity.

Other questions

How do I take milk thistle?

Milk thistle can be taken on an empty stomach. Some believe this makes it work faster; however, very sensitive individuals should consider taking milk thistle with a meal instead. Milk thistle can be taken in herbal capsules or liquid extracts.

Does milk thistle have side effects?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health notes the following about milk thistle side effects:

Milk thistle is well-tolerated in clinical trials, but on occasion people report gastrointestinal side effects. Some individuals demonstrate allergic reactions, primarily people allergic to plants in the milk thistle family. This includes ragweed, daisies, and marigolds. Milk thistle may lower blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes and should be used with caution.

Other side effects of silymarin or milk thistle may include loss of appetite and a rash.

Are there risks to taking milk thistle long term?

Like most herbal supplements, the long-term impact has not been studied with regards to milk thistle; however, it is considered to be a safe herb for supplementation. If you are concerned about how milk thistle will impact your body, it is important to seek medical advice from your personal physician.

How much milk thistle should I take?

Milk thistle is generally considered safe in doses up to 420 mg per day. Toxic effects of milk thistle have not been noted at dosage of 1,200 mg per day either. Always speak to a physician about taking a new herbal supplement, especially if you have concerns about dosage.

Does milk thistle have any interactions?

The Mayo Clinic notes the following potential interactions that you may experience while taking milk thistle with other medications or substances:

Cytochrome P450 2C9 (CYP2C9) substrates, including valium and warfarin (and the same drugs under different names). Diabetes medications - always consult with your personal physician when taking additional herbs that may lower blood sugar, like milk thistle. Metronidazole (Flagyl). Milk thistle may reduce the effectiveness of this antibiotic, therefore this combination should be avoided. Simeprevir (Olysio). Taking milk thistle with this hepatitis C medication should be avoided. Sirolimus (Rapamune). Taking milk thistle with this immunosuppressant might change the way your body processes the medication, leading to complications.

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