Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a member of the aster or daisy family and has been used by ancient physicians and herbalists to treat a range of liver and gallbladder diseases and to protect the liver against a variety of poisons. The use of milk thistle as a natural liver aid dates back 2000 years thanks to its remarkable ability to protect the liver against toxins. In recent years, the herb has been widely used by the medical community and is routinely prescribed across Europe to treat alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis, and drug and alcohol-induced liver damage.
Isn’t it the liver’s job to detox the body? Why does the liver itself need a detox?
The liver is responsible for purifying and cleaning the blood and is our primary defence against dietary and environmental toxins. When toxins begin to accumulate in the body, the liver becomes inflamed, causing us to feel sluggish and lethargic.
Today our livers are under constant assault. The liver does continue the work of cleansing your body and blood but it may become overloaded (drinking alcohol, food preservatives, second hand smoke, chemicals etc). Eventually, the liver takes on more toxins than it can handle and gets damaged.
Milk thistle is an herbal supplement that is proven to have numerous health benefits. It is primarily known for protecting your liver against alcohol, pollutants and other toxins, helping to regenerate healthy liver cells and improve your overall liver function.
Detoxing with Milk Thistle
The liver has a remarkable ability to regenerate given the right environment. While milk thistle certainly should not be seen a cure all liver treatment, there is sufficient evidence to support its use as an effective remedy for those who occasionally overindulge on fatty foods or alcoholic drinks. Milk thistle will help to detoxify chemicals and toxins that accumulate in the body, accelerate the regeneration of liver cells, and improve liver function over time.
Double blind studies on the effect of milk thistle on toxic liver damage (mostly alcohol-related), chronic liver disease and disease caused by certain drugs have been reviewed by medical experts. The experts all concluded that milk thistle is an extremely therapeutically useful medicinal plant product that stabilizes the cell membrane and stimulates protein synthesis while accelerating the process of regeneration in damaged liver tissue. These effects are important in the therapeutic efficacy of milk thistle.
According to other studies, milk thistle may protect the cells of the liver by blocking the entrance of harmful toxins and helping remove these toxins from liver cells. As with other flavonoids, milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant which works to maintain health and energy by protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and lipid peroxidation, which can injure healthy cells and tissues.
How does it work?
The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin.
Milk thistle seeds contain a bioflavonoid complex known as silymarin. Silymarin, which is the active ingredient in milk thistle, is simply the purified extract of the fruits (seeds) of the milk thistle plant. It is responsible for the main medical benefits of the milk thistle plant, and it is made up of three main flavonoids called silybin, silydianin and silychristin.
Silybin makes up 50% to 70% of silymarin and has been shown in clinical studies to be the most biologically active and beneficial constituent of the milk thistle extract, silymarin, responsible for roughly 70% of milk thistle’s total health benefit.
These three constituents work together to strengthen the outer membranes of liver cells and reduce the number of toxins entering cells. This powerful antioxidant also stimulates protein synthesis, which helps to regenerate damaged liver tissues and reduce inflammation. Milk thistle is one of the most effective herbs at stimulating the production and flow of bile, which helps to break down excess fat and prevents it from accumulating in the liver. Bile is also essential for the elimination of toxins from the body.
Liver related conditions indicating the use of milk thistle are varied, including, but not limited to:
- Alcoholic cirrhosis
- Chronic active hepatitis
- Drug and alcohol induced liver damage
- Acute viral hepatitis
- Fatty liver, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis
- Fibrosis and Cirrhosis
- Hepatic toxicity caused by steroid usage
- Environmental sensitivities and toxins
- A medical condition that necessitates the use of hepatotoxic medications
- Regular moderate-to-heavy alcohol use
Supplementing with Milk Thistle
What is Standardized Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle as an herb is made up of both active and inactive ingredients in varying amounts, with the active ingredients providing all of the supplement’s benefits and therapeutic value. Thus, to ensure consistency throughout the herbal supplement market, milk thistle is available in a standardized form. When purchasing a standardized milk thistle product, you are supposed to receive the same proportion of the active and beneficial ingredients to inactive ingredients each and every time. So if you purchase a standardized milk thistle product that is 250mg of 80% standardized silymarin, you would actually have only 200mg of the active, beneficial ingredient.
Milk Thistle Tea
Enjoying your milk thistle in tea form is a great addition to taking it in capsule form. Though it i harder to control the dose this way, it is safe; all parts of the milk thistle plant are edible and have been used as a regular part of people’s diets for centuries.
Like the supplement, milk thistle tea carries a host of benefits. In addition to helping your liver, it helps with cholesterol levels, boosts your heart health, regulates blood sugar levels and increases metabolism. People who suffer from anxiety or migraines often find milk thistle tea to be extremely helpful as well.
Is Milk Thistle Safe?
Milk thistle has a very gentle nature and is a safe option for the treatment of many liver-related conditions. The extract is generally well tolerated, with only occasional mild side effects reported, including headaches, stomach upset and nausea. The herb has been used in pregnancy with no toxic effects, however, if you are pregnant or nursing you are advised to consult with your doctor before using milk thistle. Due to its mild oestrogenic effect, as a general precaution people with a history of hormone-related cancers should use milk thistle with caution, under the supervision of a doctor.