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30 Milk Thistle Benefits Backed by Research

30 Milk Thistle Benefits Backed by Research

Nature has many powerful herbs and superfoods, we often find that many traditional medicine herbs are far more powerful than we think.

Hiding in plain sight, the myth -and science-backed magic- of milk thistle sits among us. Today we’ll tell you everything you need to know about what is milk thistle, how you can eat it, the milk thistle liver connection and more!

In this post:

  • What is milk thistle
  • How to eat milk thistle
  • The chemical composition of milk thistle (aka its magic formula)
  • 30 Incredible milk thistle benefits (backed by research!)
  • Milk Thistle Bio-availability and
  • Side Effects

So, without further ado - let’s jump to it:

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle is a flowering herb of medicinal properties related to the daisy and ragweed family native to the Mediterranean region in Europe and used to treat liver and biliary disorders for more than 2,000 years. Its seeds and fruit have been

If you haven’t heard of it and went like “what is milk thistle?”, you may know it under one of its other many names:

It is also known as silymarin, holy thistle, Marian Thistle, Mary thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, St. Mary thistle, wild artichoke, Mariendistel (German), and Chardon-Marie (French), and scientifically as Silybum Marianum.

It has a characteristic purple and white composition with thin pointy petals, and it was traditionally believed to have gotten its color -and properties- from a drop of the Virgin Mary's milk, hence the ‘holy’ names.

Myths aside, the powerful milk thistle benefits have been widely studied and recorded; in fact, it is “the most well-researched plant in the treatment of liver disease.” We now know that the active ingredients in this plant are a group of natural compounds called “flavonolignans,” specifically: silybin, silydianin, and silychristin - jointly known as “silymarin” (no, that’s not a Lord of The Rings reference.)

How to Eat Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is usually available as seeds or an extract, however, all other parts of the plant can be eaten either raw or cooked. It has a bitter taste due to its silymarin content but can feel similar to flax and hemp seeds, you can eat the seeds:

  • In a salad
  • Slightly roasted
  • As milk

The plant may be available:

  • As salad ingredient often replacing spinach
  • As tea or infusion
  • As ointment directly applied to the skin
  • In a powdered extract

The Chemical Composition of Milk Thistle:

As mentioned above, milk thistle benefits come from its seed-like milk and fruit, which has an active ingredient called silymarin, but it has other medicinal plant compounds that enhance its medicinal properties:

  • Sylmarin Flavonoliglans: Silybin is the most active of all the compounds, along with isosilybins A and B. Silybin has been found to be a stabilizing agent for cell membranes which prevents toxic chemicals from entering the cell. This supports the milk thistle liver connection.
    • Flavonoids: apigenin, kaempferol, naringin, quercetin, and taxifolin. Flavonoids, along with carotenoids, give most plants their vivid color, they’re the largest group of phytonutrients available and have a mighty antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-system-boosting properties.
    • Healthy Oils: linoleic, oleic acid, and palmitic acid, are all healthy fats linked to anti-inflammatory benefits, that may reduce acne and help skin retain moisture and radiance.
    • Vitamin E: Tocopherol, an essential fat-soluble antioxidant essential for healthy skin, hair, and nails, among others.
    • Plant Sterols: campesterol, stigmasterol, and sitosterol, all compounds which have been linked to cholesterol inhibition in the intestines, which helps reduce its levels in individuals with high cholesterol levels.
    • Sugars and proteins necessary to build and use energy in the body

Now that’s one powerful little plant! If this chemical composition sounded like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, don’t worry milk thistle benefits your life in ways you’ll be surprised, and it will all make sense once you learn the incredible thirty milk thistle benefits listed next!

30 Milk Thistle Benefits Backed by Research

This remarkable plant has many research-backed benefits. It is usually available in fruit and extracts, and we cannot get enough. Here’s why:

#1 Natural Liver Protection:

Milk thistle has been historically used as an alternative or complementary liver detox and support therapy, likely because it can protect against powerful toxins, like amatoxin

Which can be fatal if left untreated. A 2016 study found that Silymarin improves diet-induced liver damage. Additionally, taken as a supplement it has improved liver function markers.

#2 May Prevent Loss of Cognitive Function with Age:

Milk thistle benefits have been tested in animals and test-tube research, with promising results in oxidative damage prevention to brain cells, extending brain cell life span, and showing potential for Alzheimer’s disease treatment.

#3 May Protect Your Bones:

A study showed that milk thistle extract prevented bone loss in estrogen-deficiency induced Osteoporosis. While additional research revealed it could delay bone loss in postmenopausal women. Further analysis is needed, but if milk thistle benefits bone density maintenance, that is great news!

#4 Reduced Cholesterol:

Several studies have shown that people with diabetes or insulin resistance, have improved the entire lipid profile lowering Total and LDL cholesterol, and improving HDL. High cholesterol levels are linked to heart disease and high blood pressure.

#5 May Reduce Insulin Resistance:

Milk thistle benefits may help control insulin resistance; two studies saw symptoms improve in 80 people with type 2 diabetes when they were given 420mg/d of Silymarin, see here and here.

#6 May Help with Asthma

Because the active ingredient in milk thistle has the ability to reduce inflammation, milk thistle benefits the body with anti-inflammation of the airways. In fact, a  2012 study found it reduced it in mice with allergic asthma. Human studies are needed, but that’s great news!

#7 Possible Acne Treatment

Acne is a form of chronic inflammation and has also been connected to inflammation, as well as a response to oxidative stress. Milk thistle benefits the skin with its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that go beyond Silymarin. One study resulted in a 53% acne lesion reduction while taking a supplement.

#8 May Make Skin Look Better

In addition to acne treatment and potential prevention, a research team found that milk thistle regulates free radicals in skin cells (in a laboratory setting) showing “anti-aging capabilities”. Additionally, in mice, also reduced skin lesions from inflammation.

#9 Immune System Boost:

In animal studies, milk thistle benefits included improved autoimmune response and a human trial showed positive effects as well.

#10 May Limit Cancer Growth

May help stop metastasis or the spread of certain types of cancer,  as seen in these studies on colorectal and prostate cancer.

#11 Could Boost Lactation and Breast Milk Production

One study found 420 mg of silymarin for 63 days produced 64% more milk in lactating mothers, compared to the control group taking a placebo. While further research is needed it is believed that milk thistle benefits the secretion of the prolactin hormone.

#12 May Protect Against HIV

In one cellular study, one of the active ingredients in milk thistle, silybin, protected cells from the HIV virus, while also inhibiting its activity and division. Its immune and anti-inflammatory properties may also prevent HIV from spreading.

#13 Supports Natural Liver Detox

Research shows that milk thistle benefits liver cells regeneration processes,  has hepatoprotective effects, boosts glutathione production (a key liver antioxidant), and stimulates protective liver enzymes. All properties that aid the liver perform its regular detoxification.

#14 Has Antioxidant Properties

Milk thistle benefits a host of bodily functions through Silymarin’s antioxidant properties:

  • Blocking inflammation pathway NF-kB
  • Directly scavenging and neutralizing free radicals
  • Chelating free Fe and Cu
  • Blocking harmful enzymes

#15 May Reduce Autoimmunity

Milk thistle benefits estrogen receptors, which reduces the inflammatory response. One study analyzed the inflammation response linked to cytokine Th17 in autoimmune arthritis, and another found that estrogen receptors activated and bound to silybin in white blood cells and having an epigenetic effect. Essentially, it has a positive effect on autoimmune suppression.

#16 May Protect Against Influenza

In mice, silybin blocked Influenza A and reduced it from spreading. This is an incredibly promising milk thistle benefit for future human use!

#17 Could Help Reduce OCD Symptoms

In a clinical trial with 35 patients, 600mg/day of milk thistle extract reduced OCD symptoms as well as the standard fluoxetine SSRI drug in an eight week period.

#18 May Help Treat Diabetes

Silymarin in 420 mg/d doses, or 600 mg/d doses, and/or combined with berberine, has shown that milk thistle benefits lower glycemic indices, reduces fasting blood sugar, lowers blood sugar levels, and improves overall glycemic profile in patients with Type 2 Diabetes.

#19 Heart Protection

By reducing cholesterol and fat levels in the blood, milk thistle helps safeguard arteries and veins from damage and obstruction. Its anti-inflammatory properties help lower blood pressure as seen in this study.

#20 May Reduce Radio and Chemotherapy Side Effects

Milk thistle in cream form prevented skin damage in breast cancer patients under radiotherapy, prevented hand-foot syndrome in patients under stomach cancer treatment, and increased survival rate (while decreasing tissue damage) on patients under brain cancer therapy. It is a promising component for more efficient recovery.

#21 May Help Eliminate Iron Excess

Silymarin can behave as an iron chelator, where it binds itself to excessive iron (stored by the liver) and helps eliminate it. This may be helpful for those with genetic disorders. Several studies point to milk thistle as an agent in iron-induced organ damage reduction.

#22 Could Help Protect Red Blood Cells

Free radicals can easily damage red blood cells because milk thistle neutralizes free radicals in red blood cells it reduces its breakdown. Additionally, increased glutathione levels protect these cells, as seen in this pharmacological study.

#23 Supported Weight Loss

Milk thistle benefits weight loss reducing fat cell storage, making fat cells smaller, and activating fat burning genes.

#24 May Improve Bile Flow

Milk thistle supports the production of bile salts, which are then secreted to the gut. In cellular and animal trails, milk thistle increased bile flow and bile modulation.

#25 Supports Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Treatment

In a clinical trial with 179 patients, milk thistle combined with Vitamin E and other chemicals showed that patients had “improvement in liver enzymes, insulin resistance, and liver histology, without increases in body weight,” reducing markers of NAFLD.

#26 May Make Hepatitis C and B Less Dangerous

Another clinical trial with 125 patients with hepatitis, demonstrated the power of a 420 mg/day silymarin dose - symptom flares reduced, jaundice improved, and bile flow increased in just over 4 weeks.

#27 Treatment of Alcoholic Liver Disease

In a 600 people study, researchers observed that Silymarin lowered effectively bilirubin and harmful high liver enzyme to safe levels.

#28 May Help With Your Hangover

As you may expect given the liver-boosting capacities of milk thistle, its benefits are often used to treat hangovers. There isn’t a lot of data available but in mice, milk thistle protected the livers of highly alcohol-intoxicated subjects from injury.

#29 May Protect the Kidneys

In an eight week study of patients undergoing dialysis, milk thistle was found to decrease harmful inflammatory cytokine markers. It has also been found helpful in animal testing, reducing antibiotic-induced kidney damage in dogs.

#30 Might Make PMS More Manageable

C-Reactive Protein or CRP is a liver-generated substance in response to inflammation. Women experiencing premenstrual syndrome symptoms (cramps, bloating, breast tenderness) have been found to have high CRP levels. Milk thistle benefits include lowering CRP Levels.

Milk Thistle Bio-availability

Silybin has poor bio-availability; only around 20–50% of milk thistle’s most active compound gets absorbed from the gut. Silybin is not water soluble, however mixing it with other natural products increases its bio-availability and absorption, such as:

  • Berberine
  • The Flavonoid quercetin
  • Healthy fat
  • Vitamin E
  • Bile salts

In extract form, you’ll usually find a combination that brings out milk thistle benefits and enhances absorption to leverage its liver detox properties and antioxidant capabilities.

Milk Thistle Side Effects

Milk thistle is generally very safe to eat, consume in extract form, or use as a natural ointment. However, as with most medicinal plants, there may be negative side effects for those with pre-existing conditions that clash with the herb’s natural properties:

  • Allergic reaction to the Asteraceae/Compositae family (like daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds or ragweed)
  • Hormonal conditions (milk thistle benefits estrogen production which may be counter-intuitive)
  • Nausea, diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and gas. Especially in people with allergies to kiwi and artichokes, given that absorption, happens mostly through the gut.
  • People with diabetes and tendency to low blood pressure should be careful when using milk thistle, as it lowers blood sugar levels
  • Some contaminated extracts may have fungi that have unintended side effects on humans.

As you can see, milk thistle is a superfood and liver-boosting herb that has plenty of scientific and experimental support. Knowing the many benefits of milk thistle we couldn’t help but add it to one of our upcoming liver-support supplements.

In the meantime, how are you planning to try milk thistle? Are you interested? Let us know!

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