Also known as: Blessed milkthistle; Marian thistle; Mary thistle; St Mary's thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle; variegated thistle; Scotch thistle
Milk Thistle Background
Milk thistle extract, also known as silymarin come from the plant species Silybum marianum. The health benefits of this herb have been realized for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians utilized the medicinal properties of milk thistle, and there is historical biblical writing referencing the plant. In the 1st century AD, it was used to treat snake bites and depression which were thought to be related to the liver. In the Middle Ages (5th-15th century AD), the recognition of the medicinal properties of milk thistle for liver pathologies increased even more [Federico et al. 2017].
Modern pharmacological studies identify silybin as the major (~70%) active ingredient in milk thistle extract. Its other active compounds include silibinin, isosilibinin, silychristin, isosilychristin, silydianin, and taxifolin. Toxicity studies verify the safety of this extract, making it a valuable herbal remedy [Federico et al. 2017].
Silybin from milk thistle is categorized as an antioxidant due to its free radical scavenging and anti-inflammatory capabilities. Additionally, its apoptotic property helps with regulating abnormal cell growth. It’s been administered as a powerful detoxifier for various chemical poisoning, and its demonstrated therapeutic potentials towards rheumatoid arthritis, neuroinflammation, and diabetes. A review of the scientific literature on milk thistle demonstrate that this herbal remedy is effective against liver disorders [Federico et al. 2017].
Milk Thistle For Liver & Other Health Benefits*
Silymarin is most recognized for its liver-protective properties. It exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antifibrotic abilities that treat a variety of liver disorders. Milk thistle can reduce virus-related liver damages by reducing inflammation, and it can act as antiviral for hepatitis C virus infection. For alcoholic liver disease, it can increase cell vitality and reduce cell damage by fighting off volatile free radicals. Furthermore, this powerful herb can reduce fibrosis and advanced liver scarring also known as cirrhosis of the liver [Federico et al. 2017].
Silymarin can also be effective against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by reducing mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress that damage tissues [Federico et al. 2017]. These damages are brought forth by liver fat accumulation and insulin resistance which are symptoms of diabetes. There are studies that demonstrate that milk thistle extract is also an anti-diabetic.
Milk thistle acts effectively in treating diabetic symptoms and complications. The specific compounds linked to this ability is silibinin. There are human studies which demonstrate milk thistle’s benefit for diabetes and its liver complications [Kazazis et al. 2014]. Let’s take a closer look.
A dose of 200 mg of milk thistle extract (silymarin) three times a day reduced blood glucose levels among 25 patients. It also lowered total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglyceride, and Aspartate Aminotransferase (AST) and alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels.
Patients with diabetes and alcoholic liver cirrhosis observed health benefits after two months of taking 600 mg of milk thistle extract every day. Particularly, they exhibited a dramatic reduction in their fasting blood glucose and average daily glucose levels.
Silibin milk thistle extract has also been used to treat diabetic patients with end-stage renal disease in the form of 350mg intravenous bolus dose. Within 24 hours, cellular surface thiol status was restored. In 48 hours, there was observed improvement in T cell activation and reduction in inflammation.
A study administered a dose of 140 mg of milk thistle extract three times a day to 60 patients with type 2 diabetes exhibiting microalbuminuria. This treatment helped reduce urinary albumin excretion, urinary TNFα levels, and urinary and serum MDA levels by 50% to almost half of the treated patients.
With rheumatoid arthritis, milk thistle has demonstrated the capacity to reduce inflammation. By inhibiting the migration and activation of neutrophils in the joints, silymarin acts as an anti-inflammatory [Federico et al. 2017]. Neutrophils are a type of immune cells that can be damaging in high concentrations. It can become harmful to living cells since it can release volatile free radicals that cause oxidative stress. As an antioxidant, milk thistle extract can balance free radical activities and reduce tissue damage from oxidative stress [Wright et al. 2014].
Milk Thistle extract has demonstrated an ability to treat Parkinson’s disease. Its neuroprotective property in the brain is linked with the capacity of silymarin to lower inflammation. In Parkinson’s disease, silymarin can prevent dopaminergic neuron death and prevent further activation and release of inflammatory factors in the brain [Wang et al. 2002].
Milk Thistle Safety*
It is important and necessary to consult a doctor when deciding to use milk thistle for liver. That being said, there are studies indicating silymarin is generally considered safe. It can, however, interact with high concentrations of chemotherapeutic agents like vincristine or L-asparaginase. Doses as high or lower than13g/day show no adverse effect, but 20g/day or higher can result in asymptomatic liver toxicity [Kazazis et al. 201]. When deciding on a dose, make sure to follow instructions from product labels.
Patients with chronic hepatitis C did not experience adverse effects when administered up to 700 mg of silymarin for 7 days. However, those who took doses up to 1200 mg/day for 12 weeks reported headaches, dizziness, and itchy skin. In the case of patients with sclerosing cholangitis, there were complaints of indigestion after being administered 140 mg three times a day for 7 to 221 months [Kazazis et al. 201].
Pregnant and lactating mothers should always seek medical advice before taking any supplements. However, there is a study that administered 420 mg/day of micronized silymarin to 25 healthy lactating mothers who reported no adverse effect [Kazazis et al. 201].