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The Hidden Health Benefits of Milk Thistle

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With hundreds of herbal supplements available for daily consumption, it is easy to overlook some of the lesser-known supplements. This article examines the potential of the often-overlooked plant milk thistle, which has surprising health benefits.

There are hundreds of herbal supplements that boost health in various ways. One of the often overlooked beneficial herbs is milk thistle. Milk thistle has been used for thousands of years to heal issues in the digestive system, kidneys, the liver, and the gall bladder.

Although milk thistle is an herb that has been in use for thousands of years, it was not until recently that the possible benefits of the herb have been examined at large. However, studies now show that many of the traditional uses of milk thistle are in fact, supported by science.

Read on to find out the health benefits of this common herb.

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle is a type of thistle plant, growing natively in the Mediterranean. The stalks are stiff and spiky and the plant has spiky white or pink flowers. The plant is dubbed milk thistle due to the white substance that leaks out from the stalks when they are broken.

For thousands of years, milk thistle has been used as an herbal remedy in teas, salads, and as infusions to treat numerous health problems. Many of the health benefits found in milk thistle come from the compound silymarin, which is a flavonoid that has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral properties during in vitro studies.

The Health Benefits of Milk Thistle

Milk thistle has several documented health benefits. The biggest health benefit of milk thistle found so far is its ability to protect against liver damage. Silymarin is anti-fibrotic, which prevents liver tissues and other tissues from scarring.

Additionally, silymarin is able to prevent toxins from binding to the cell membranes in the liver, helping your liver operate at optimal levels.

Liver Health

According to a 2010 study published in Phototherapy Research, extracts of silymarin have been used to treat liver disease, hepatitis, liver injuries, and alcoholic liver disease. The study authors also stated that silymarin extracts are also used to treat the following conditions:

Uses for Silymarin Extract
  • Healing from NSAID-related liver damage
  • Radiation damage
  • Iron overload
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Treatment for the ingestion of the death cap mushroom
  • Damage from psychotropic medicine
  • Poison damage
  • Carcinogen damage

Reduced Inflammation

The anti-inflammatory effects of milk thistle are well-documented. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Natural Products found that when milk thistle extracts are used in combination with other anti-inflammatory compounds, results are increased.

The study authors found that cells respond to silymarin first, increasing stress at the cellular level. This triggers cells to recover or die, depending on what is best for the cell, to reduce total inflammation. The second phase suppresses the gene expression of inflammation.

The two-part response not only treats the symptoms of inflammation but also the cause to some extent.

Antioxidant Effects

Milk thistle contains several antioxidants, which can have beneficial effects throughout the body. These antioxidants are particularly beneficial in reducing the negative effects of alcohol. According to data collected by the American Botanical Council, milk thistle's antioxidant effects are powerful.

A report from the ACB states that milk thistle has beneficial effects against:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin tumors
  • Tongue cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Brain tumors


The American Botanical Council suggests that milk thistle is beneficial for individuals with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Silymarin extracts have been found to reduce blood sugar levels and cholesterol at the same time.

Alzheimer's Disease

A 2010 study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry found that milk thistle may have protective effects against the development of Alzheimer's disease. In animal studies, extracts of silymarin were found to suppress the formation of a toxic protein linked with the development of Alzheimer's disease.

How Safe is Milk Thistle?

According to the American Botanical Council, milk thistle extracts, teas, or infusions are generally well-tolerated by most. ABC stated in a report on the safety of milk thistle,

"... it seems clear that under the restricted conditions of available trials, milk thistle appears to be quite safe… an oral form standardized to contain 70% to 80% silymarin given at a dosage of 420 mg daily, was safe for up to 41 months of use, and significant drug reactions were not reported."

However, although milk thistle is generally considered safe, there are a few side effects. Some users report mild allergic reactions to milk thistle. Others report a milk laxative effect.

How to Use Milk Thistle

Milk thistle can be used in three different ways, depending on what benefits you want to receive. Milk Thistle as a Supplement Extracts of silymarin are available as over-the-counter supplement pills. This may be most beneficial for individuals wishing to heal liver problems or treat chronic inflammation.

Doses up to 420 mg daily are considered safe.

Milk Thistle as a Tea

If you want a more natural, mild effect, milk thistle can be brewed as a tea. Purchase dried milk thistle leaves and brew in hot water for about 10 minutes. Since milk thistle has a grassy, herbal flavor, you may want to add honey or mix milk thistle with other tea flavors to reduce the bitterness.

Milk Thistle as a Topical Agent

According to some studies cited by the American Botanical Council, milk thistle shows some benefits to skin cancer and tumors when applied topically. You can apply a paste of silymarin combined with your favorite motion several times a day on affected areas. If you do suspect skin cancer, visit a doctor before starting treatment to make sure the skin cancer is benign before starting treatment with topical milk thistle.

Is Milk Thistle Right for Me?

If you have problems with chronic inflammation, liver damage, or blood sugar levels, adding a milk thistle supplement may be beneficial. If you do not want to take pills, milk thistle tea is a viable alternative with slightly less potent results. The properties of milk thistle make it a beneficial herb for everyone to try a few times a month, or more often, depending on their particular health needs. If you are pregnant or nursing, consult with a doctor or other qualified health professional before adding any milk thistle to your diet.





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