Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), a member of the Asteraceae family, is a therapeutic herb with a 2000-year history of use in traditional Chinese, European, and Ayurvedic medicine. Originally native to Southern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean region, the plant now grows wild throughout the world. In addition to being one of the most commonly used supplements for supporting liver health, milk thistle also offers specialized nutrition for the cardiovascular system, prostate, and gallbladder. High-quality, organic milk thistle is inexpensive, readily available, and should be on your list. Let’s take a look at seven exciting ways milk thistle supports good health.
1. Assists Antioxidant Activity
The health benefits of milk thistle lie in its seeds, the extract of which is called silymarin. Silymarin is a potent antioxidant. The extract contains natural compounds called flavonolignans, which are phytochemicals that are part flavonoid and part lignan. Silibinin is the most active flavonolignan in silymarin. While silibinin itself is a strong antioxidant, silymarin is 8-10 times more potent than silibinin alone in scavenging free radicals.
2. Nutritional Support for the Liver and Gallbladder
Milk thistle’s foremost role in traditional medicine is to support liver and gallbladder health. The liver is one of your body’s primary organs for detoxification. Maintaining its proper function is critically important to overall wellness. Milk thistle is one of the best herbs you can use to promote liver health. Silymarin helps the liver grow new cells by boosting protein synthesis. Animal testing has revealed that silymarin may counteract some toxin-induced liver ailments.
3. Encourages Normal Lipid Profiles
Milk thistle may support normal lipid profiles. Early research suggests that silymarin, combined with other flavonoids, may promote ideal lipid absorption and synthesis in the body. The exact mechanism behind these properties is unknown, although it may relate to the herb’s strong antioxidant properties.
4. Promotes Healthy Skin
Topical preparations of milk thistle extract may offer beneficial effects for the skin. Animal studies have found that silymarin encourages normal skin cell development in mice. One purely observational study concluded that a topically-applied, silymarin-based skin cream effectively encourages healthy skin. Preliminary investigations have even begun to examine the potential of silymarin as a natural replacement for conventional sunscreen.
5. Supports Normal Blood Sugar
Recent studies have focused on milk thistle’s potential to encourage normal blood sugar. In both animal and human testing, daily administration of silymarin was found to promote normal blood sugar levels. Silibinin has also demonstrated beneficial effects on problems that may result from imbalanced blood sugar. Again, more research is required to fully understand the relationship between milk thistle and blood sugar.
6. May Counteract Mushroom Poisoning
Amanita phalloides, more commonly known as the death cap, is a deadly mushroom commonly mistaken for edible varieties. The appropriately-named death cap is one of the most poisonous mushrooms on Earth and the most frequent cause of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide. Milk thistle can not only help prevent this, intravenous administration of silymarin is the only thing that works. Silymarin stabilizes cell membranes and inhibits the absorption of the toxin.
7. Supports Prostate Health
The prostate is a small organ in the male reproductive system. It produces prostatic fluid, which nourishes and protects sperm. Unfortunately, the prostate can also be the point of development for threatening conditions. Fortunately, milk thistle may support normal prostate health. Silymarin has demonstrated numerous benefits to prostate health both in vitro and in vivo, including normal cell development and the development of new blood vessels. A related milk thistle compound, isosilybin B, was found to be particularly effective. More research is necessary, but studies like these provide strong support for the use of silibinin to support prostate health.
The Side Effects of Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is safe for most people, but those with a ragweed allergy should avoid it. As a member of the ragweed family, the plant can upset the condition. Due to its effects on blood sugar, those who already suffer from low blood sugar should exercise caution. While safe for humans, milk thistle is toxic to cows and sheep when eaten in large amounts over a period of days or weeks.
Best Tips for Growing Milk Thistle
You can buy organic milk thistle seeds online, but if you want them fresh, you may have to grow your own. Fortunately, the plant is extremely easy to grow. Maybe even a little too easy. There’s a reason it’s often thought of as a highly invasive weed.
In fact, be sure to check your local laws before planting. Because of its prolific nature, some jurisdictions restrict milk thistle. For example, the state of Washington recognizes the plant as a “Class A Noxious Weed” that must be eradicated when found. You could face a stiff fine for growing it intentionally.
Once you’ve checked your local laws, you’ll need to obtain viable milk thistle seeds. These can be ordered online or harvested from an existing plant. You can start the seeds indoors, but the plant is hardy enough that you can probably plant directly outside.
In mid to late summer the flowers will dry and transform into a white puff that’s similar to a dandelion. This is when it’s time to harvest your seeds. Beneficial aspects aside, remember that the plant is still a thistle. It has little, spiky barbs, so wear thick gardening gloves and be careful. Remove all the puffy white flower heads and put them in a paper bag. Keep the flowers in the bag for about a week to dry. At the end of the week, shake the bag vigorously to separate the seed from the fluff.
Easy Milk Thistle Tea Recipe
Making a tea is a great way to access the health benefits of milk thistle seed. Using a mortar, grind one tablespoon of milk thistle seeds into a powder. Steep in 3 cups of boiling water for about 15 minutes and strain. Enjoy a cup 30 minutes before meals or bedtime. Some cultures even enjoy roasted, crushed milk thistle seeds as an alternative to coffee.
What Are the Benefits of Milk Thistle Seed?
Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) has a history dating back over two thousand years as a favorite among herbalists for its positive effects on the liver and gallbladder. The ancient philosophers Pliny and Galen both praised the herb for liver cleansing. Now, milk thistle is one of the most well-researched plants for liver support applications.
What is the Active Component of Milk Thistle Seed?
The seeds contain the highest concentrations of the active compound, silymarin. Silymarin is an antioxidant that reduces free radical production and oxidative damage. It may also inhibit the binding of toxins to the liver. In animals, silymarin reduces liver injury caused by acetaminophen and has been shown to have positive effects on alcoholic liver disease, hepatitis and toxin-induced liver problems. It’s also very encouraging that milk thistle has a good safety record; side effects are rare and serious toxicity has not been reported, neither have drug interactions.
Liver Support Applications
With research that may open the door for more examples of traditional medicine to be successfully transposed into modern medical interventions, the Université of Montréal in Quebec assessed the protective potential of milk thistle extract in liver transplantation injury and concluded that silibinin shows promise in protecting the liver from certain damages.
Milk thistle is native to the Mediterranean and the stems, also rich in antioxidants, are regularly eaten by those in the area to reduce oxidative damage in the liver and biliary tract. Oxidative damage is thought to be one of the main mechanisms involved in nearly all chronic liver disorders. Overall, when investigating the value of herbal therapies for liver disorders, milk thistle is of high interest due to its high antioxidant capacity.
Milk thistle seed has even been examined for a potential role in battling hepatitis C in Pakistan, where infection is a major problem.
Other Actions of Milk Thistle
Interestingly, milk thistle seed has historically been given to people that ingested amanita, a toxic mushroom. It appears science agrees with this folk remedy, as researchers at the Institute of Complementary Medicine at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland reviewed 65 papers on milk thistle trials and studies and, based on the available evidence, concluded it was reasonable to use silymarin for amanita toxicity. A review of all information also prompted them to encourage new research to explore new uses.
Milk thistle has structural relation to compounds demonstrated active on liver metabolic processes, leading to speculation milk thistle reduces blood sugar. Further examination has in concluded the effects on liver glucose metabolism do have a blood sugar lowering effect.
Milk thistle seed extract is known to have estrogenic effects and effects on memory by estrogen have been reported. Studies involving rats showed silybin administration during pregnancy resulted in positive brain changes and better memory. Could this lay the groundwork for further exploration of silybin and memory impairment diseases?
Supplementing with Milk Thistle
Milk thistle can be found as an extract in supplements in liquid or capsule form. As mentioned above, this herb possesses a wealth of benefits, mainly supporting and protecting the normal functions of the liver. Due to these benefits, organic milk thistle is one of the main ingredients in Livatrex®, a powerful blend of herbs that aid digestion and support the liver and gallbladder.