Milk thistle (or Silybum marianum) is an herb native to Europe that can be easily identified for its prickly purple flowers and leaves with white marbling. The active ingredients in the herb are compounds called silymarin, which has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiviral properties.
Milk thistle is available as a supplement under the name “milk thistle extract,” which contains between 65 and 80% of silymarin. Traditionally, milk thistle has been used for gallbladder issues and liver disease - be it cirrhosis due to alcohol use, snake bites, or other poisonous substances. Contemporary research suggests that the herb may have further beneficial uses too, which we outline in this article.
1. Restores liver damage
Milk thistle is often used as a complementary treatment of liver damage. The liver can be damaged due to a variety of conditions ranging from hepatitis, liver cancer, alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or even poisoning. All types of liver damage can be reduced after using milk thistle supplements.
One study even reported that taking milk thistle can increase life expectancy in patients suffering from cirrhosis. And a 2017 review of animal and human experiments concluded that silymarin may even help treat hepatitis C viral infections. Researchers are not sure how milk thistle works and what doses people should be taking for specific conditions, but it is believed to reduce inflammation and free-radical damage to liver cells due to its antioxidant properties.
2. Lowers blood sugar
Milk thistle extract may be a good complementary treatment of type 2 diabetes. The silymarin in milk thistle works similarly to diabetic medications by reducing fasting blood sugar and improving insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes. A 2016 review article suggests that taking 200-600 milligrams of silymarin from 45 days to 6 months is capable of reducing blood sugar levels. Milk thistle does this by protecting the insulin-producing pancreatic cells from damage, and it may also reduce your risk of diabetic complications as well.
3. May be beneficial for cancer patients
Apart from silymarin, the herb also contains an antioxidant known as silibinin. According to a 2014 review article, silibinin is capable of preventing the growth of tumor cells in the lungs, colon, skin, and prostate in animal models. Milk thistle may also make cancer treatments more effective and reduce side effects, but so far, studies in humans were relatively small and didn’t show a strong effect.
A 2019 study also found that using silymarin topically for 5 weeks daily reduces skin irritation and rashes caused by radiation treatment. More research is needed to confirm that it helps cancer patients in a meaningful and consistent manner.
4. Bone strengthening
Osteoporosis is a disease that makes bones porous and more susceptible to fractures. It usually affects older people, especially women, as the process of bone loss is gradual and takes years to develop. A number of studies have been conducted in vitro and in animal models suggesting that milk thistle extract can slow down age-related bone loss by stimulating bone mineralization - according to a 2013 review study.
Bone mineralization strengthens the bones by replacing lost minerals. Therefore, researchers suggest that milk thistle may be a viable preventative treatment of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, but we still need human studies to support this claim.
5. Prevention of cognitive decline
Milk thistle is a well-known traditional remedy for brain conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. It has been used to slow down the progression of these diseases for more than two thousand years. More recently, a few test-tube and animal model studies have been conducted to explore the herb’s potential as a treatment of cognitive decline. These studies suggest that silymarin is capable of preventing oxidative damage in brain cells and may even be able to reduce amyloid plaques in animals with Alzheimer’s disease.
Amyloid plaques are protein clusters that build up in the brain and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Even though we don’t have experiments in humans that support the herb’s effectiveness in neurological conditions, researchers are optimistic about its uses.
How to use milk thistle
Milk thistle is usually taken by mouth as a supplement, and it has been shown to be safe. Less than 1% of patients who took milk thistle reported side effects like bloating, diarrhea, or nausea. While milk thistle can be taken by most people and is sold as a supplement, there is no safety testing to confirm that it’s safe during pregnancy.
The herb may also interfere with diabetic medication and hormone-related conditions, including certain kinds of breast cancer, so make sure to consult your physician if you have any underlying conditions and want to start taking milk thistle.
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