The medicinal use of milk thistle can be traced back thousands of years to the times of the Greek and Roman Empires. Today, researchers have completed more than 300 scientific studies that attest to the benefits of this herb, particularly for treating liver ailments.
What it is?
Known by its botanical name, Silybum marianum, as well as by its principal active ingredient, silymarin, milk thistle is a member of the sunflower family. The purple flowersand milky white leaf veins of this herb are a common sight in many parts of Europe, where it grows as a weed. I blooms in summer, and the shiny black seeds used for medicinal purposes are collected at the end of summer. The weed known as milk thistle in Australia is of a different genus and species, Sonchus oleraceus, and is not a substitute for Silybum marianum.
What it does?
Milk thistle is one of the most extensively studied and documented herbs in use today. Scientific Research continues to validate its healing powers, particularly for the treatment of liver related disorders. Most of its effectiveness stems from a complex of three liver protecting compounds, collectively known as silymarin, which constitutes 4-6% of the ripe seeds.
Among the most important benefits of milk thistle is its ability to repair the liver, which is one of the body's most important organs, second in size only to the skin. The liver processes nutrients, including fats and other foods. In addition, it neutralized, or detoxifies, many drugs, chemical pollutants and alcohol. Milk thistle helps to enhance and strengthen this vital organ by preventing the depletion of glutathione, an amino-acid-like compound essential to the detoxifying process. What's more, studies show that milk thistle can increase glutathione concentration by up to 35%. It is also an effective 'gatekeeper', limiting the number of toxins the liver processes at any time.
Milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant as well. Even more potent than vitamins C and E, it helps to prevent damage from highly reactive free-radical molecules. Furthermore, it promotes the regeneration of healthy new liver cells to replace old and damaged ones. Milk thistle eases a range of serious liver ailments, including viral infections (hepatitis) and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). This herb is so potent that it can even combat the life-threatening, liver-destroying effects of poisonous mushrooms. In addition, because excessive alcohol depletes glutathione, milk thistle can help to protect the liver of alcoholics or people who are recovering from alcohol abuse.
In cancer patients, milk thistle reduces the potential for drug-induced damage of the liver after chemotherapy, and it speeds up recovery by hastening the removal of toxic substances that can accumulate in the body. The herb also reduces the inflammation, and may slow the skin cell proliferation, associated with psoriasis. It may be useful for endometriosis (the most common cause of infertility in women) because it helps the liver to process the hormone oestrogen, which at high levels can worsen pain and other symptoms. Finally,, milk thistle can help to prevent or treat gallstones by improving the flow of bile, the cholesterol-laden digestive juice that travels from the liver through the gall bladder and into the intestine, where it helps to digest fats.
- Protects the liver from toxins, including drugs, poisons and chemicals.
- Treats liver disorders, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis.
- Reduces liver damage from excessive alcohol.
- Helps treat and prevent gallstones.
- Helps clear psoriasis.
- Any liver disease requires careful evaluation and supervision by a doctor.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
The recommended dose for milk thistle is up to 250 mg of standardized extract (containing 70-80% silymarin) three times a day. it is often combined with other herbs and nutrients, such as dandelion, choline, methionine and inositol. This combination may be labeled 'liver complex' or 'lipotropic factors'. ('Lipotropic' refers to the formula's fat-metabolising properties, which prevent fatty substances from building up in the liver.) For dosage, follow package directions.
Guidelines for use:
Milk thistle seems most effective when taken between meals. Its benefits may be noticeable within a week or two, though long-term treatment is often needed for chronic conditions. The herb appears to be safe, even for pregnant and breast-feeding women. No interactions with other medications have been noted.
Possible side effects
Virtually no side effects have been attributed to the use of milk thistle, which is considered one of the safest herbs on the market. However, in some people it may have a slight laxative effect for a day or two.
- To be sure you're getting the proper dose, buy products made from standardized extracts that contain 70-80% silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle. You may also want preparations that contain both milk thistle and phosphatidylcholine, a principle constituent of the natural fatty compound lecithin. Studies show that this combination may be better absorbed than regular milk thistle.
- Be wary of alcohol-based tinctures. Some formulas contain high amounts of alcohol, which can be bad for the liver if taken in large doses.
Milk thistle may one day prove an important weapon in the battle against skin cancer. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that when the active ingredient, silymarin, was applied to the skin of mice, 75% fewer skin tumours resulted following exposure to ultraviolet radiation. More studies are needed to see if it has a similar effect for humans.
Did you know?
Milk thistle is not very soluble in water, so teas made from the seeds usually contain few of its liver-protecting ingredients.