Milk Thistle: All You Need to Know

April 15, 2020 6 min read

Since ancient times, milk thistle (silybum marianum) has been used in traditional medicine. What is milk thistle? Milk thistle is a prickly, silvery weed with a round, purple flower, which grows wild in southern Europe and the Near East. Its seeds are brown and oblong, and herbalists used them in decoctions and tinctures. We now know that they were extracting a chemical known to modern medicine as Silymarin, which has a number of known or theorized applications. Now you can buy milk thistle extract as an over-the-counter supplement. Here is everything you need to know before you take milk thistle extract.

How It Got Its Name
Let’s start with what we know is your first question: Why is it called “milk thistle?” One reason is that, when crushed, the leaves exude a thick, white sap. Milk thistle is also called holy thistle or St. Mary’s thistle, two names that both derive from the same medieval legend. The story goes that St. Mary was breast-feeding the infant Jesus in a field of thistles, and a drop of milk fell onto one of the plants. This gave the plant its milky properties, and also its life-saving ones. So, what is milk thistle good for?

The Legend Behind Milk Thistle
That legend probably has its origins in one traditional use of milk thistle. Herbalists call it a galactagogue, meaning it promotes milk production in nursing mothers. Perhaps it was the plant’s whitish sap that gave our ancestors the idea of using it in this way.

Medieval herbalists believed in the “doctrine of signatures,” the belief that plants will tell you how they want to be used. However, the use of milk thistle as a galactagogue is actually even older, dating all the way back to ancient Greece.

So does it work? One study suggests it does. In 2008, an Italian study showed that lactating women treated with 420 mg/day of Silymarin produced 86% more milk than women who took a placebo.

Detoxifying Effects
You may have seen milk thistle marketed for its “detoxifying” effects. That isn’t a medical term, and it can mean a few different things. But in the case of milk thistle, it means that it promotes the health of your liver, helping it to filter your blood.

Milk thistle affects your liver in two ways. First, it’s believed to be a cholagogue, meaning it helps your liver discharge bile. Bile, one of the digestive fluids, is made in the liver and moves to the gallbladder and then the intestines. When it works, it’s what breaks down the fat you eat. When it doesn’t move smoothly, however, it can cause problems including liver damage, gallstones, and jaundice.

Antioxidants and Your Liver
The other health benefit of milk thistle to your liver is its antioxidant effect. Free radicals, unstable molecules that are missing a valence electron, can concentrate in the liver. Free radicals damage your organs by reacting with your tissues. But Silymarin bonds with the radicals before they can cause any damage.

So what does the science have to say about milk thistle and your liver? Researchers think that further study will show the same effects in humans. Because the research isn’t totally in, your doctor won’t prescribe you Silymarin for serious liver disease. But if you’re worried about your liver, it could be beneficial as a supplement for a milk thistle liver detox.

Weight Loss Supplement
Did you raise your eyebrows earlier, when we said Silymarin could help your body break down fats? Hardly surprising — dietary supplements around the world are big business. It’s natural to wonder whether a little Silymarin could help break down the fat that’s already in your body. And if the study on mice we mentioned earlier is any indication of Silymarin’s effects on you, the answer is yes, it could. Milk thistle benefits weight loss for those trying to lose weight.

The mice in the study lost significant weight, had their blood lipids drop, and became more responsive to insulin. It’s still not clear how this would work on humans in a laboratory setting, but maybe in the future, Silymarin will be used to support weight loss.

Preventing Diabetes
Yes, we said just now that Silymarin makes you more responsive to insulin. Does that mean that it can reduce your risk of diabetes? One 2006 study from the Institute of Medicinal Plants suggests it does. That study treated diabetes patients with either Silymarin or a placebo over the course of four months, on top of conventional therapy. At the end of the study, the patients in the test group had lower blood sugar levels than the ones in the control group.

If you’re worried that you’re at risk of diabetes, taking a milk thistle supplement to decrease your insulin reuptake may be helpful. However, we should stress that this isn’t a DIY treatment for people who have already been diagnosed with the disease. It can cause dangerously low blood sugar and should not be attempted outside a controlled experimental environment.

For Bone Health
There is research suggesting that silymarin may be good for women’s’ post-menopausal bone atrophy. One 2013 study, also on mice, showed that silymarin inhibited bone loss caused by an excess of estrogen.

This is promising, the researchers pointed out, because current osteoporosis medications can be dangerous. However, although the supplement worked, researchers wouldn’t speculate about how it worked. It may or may not be as effective in other kinds of bone decay.

Other Antioxidant Benefits
As we said earlier, milk thistle packs a powerful punch of antioxidants, which work by neutralizing free radicals. As the name implies, free radicals are mainly caused by the breakdown of the oxygen molecules we need to live. These form what chemists call reactive oxygen species, or ROSs.

There is no way to keep ROSs from entering your body, simply because we can’t stop breathing oxygen. However, they are found in every part of the body and using antioxidants to neutralize them before they cause damage can provide some benefits everywhere.

Five minutes spent reading labels in any health-food store aisle will tell you we haven’t even scratched the surface of antioxidants’ benefits. They can reduce the instance of acne and dark skin spots. They can decrease your risk of degenerative diseases, including cancer, emphysema, and stroke, just to name a few. In particular, they seem to be effective in degenerations of the brain, like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

Antioxidants can also reduce plaque buildup in your arteries, or atherosclerosis. One theory even holds that free radicals are what cause us to age. Of course, it’s impossible to take enough antioxidants to prevent aging, but it could be one element of why people who eat a healthy diet tend to age gracefully.

Milk Thistle Side Effects
As we mentioned earlier, milk thistle may increase insulin retention, but it should not be used by people with diabetes. It is a cause of low blood sugar.

Milk thistle is estrogenic. This means it can imitate estrogen and bind to estrogen receptors in your body. If you have a condition that could be affected by a change in estrogen reuptake, do not take milk thistle. This includes ovarian cancer, some breast cancers, uterine fibroids, or endometriosis. Also avoid milk thistle if you are pregnant because it has not been researched for use in pregnant women.

Milk thistle has been suggested for use in dogs by some alternative veterinary specialists. Talk to your veterinarian before giving your dog milk thistle. Canine use has not been extensively studied.

Do not take milk thistle if you are allergic to any plants in its family, Asteraceae. These include lettuce, sunflowers, echinacea, artichokes, and ragweed.

You may experience some gastrointestinal discomfort when taking milk thistle. It is a mild laxative. Most people taking milk thistle do not experience side effects.

Milk Thistle Interaction
Because milk thistle is not an FDA-approved treatment — further research will be necessary before it can be approved — its interactions have not been studied rigorously. If you are on any prescriptions, ask your doctor before taking milk thistle. However, there is some anecdotal evidence of negative interactions with milk thistle.

Allergy medications, blood thinners, and anti-anxiety drugs should not be taken with milk thistle. Do not take milk thistle if you are undergoing chemotherapy, because antioxidants have been shown to interact dangerously with chemotherapy drugs.

Where can I purchase milk thistle?
Want to know where to buy milk thistle? Reasonable Remedies has partnered with Dr. Marz, a non-toxic, all-natural supplement company that offers a quality Milk Thistle herbal blend. You can buy milk thistle directly from our site.

Milk thistle is a traditional medicine that has been used for centuries. Lately, more and more medical studies have suggested that our ancestors knew what they were doing when they took milk thistle extract as a supplement. It promotes milk production in nursing mothers and bile flow in the liver. It may promote weight loss, and could play a role in preventing diabetes.

It also has a high concentration of antioxidants, which have been linked to an enormous number of health benefits. If taken safely, in accordance with all package directions, it could be a beneficial supplement to protect your health.
Jason Allen
Jason Allen

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