February 01 2021
What is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle also known as Silybum marianum is a prickly plant that has distinctive purple flowers and white veins. The active ingredients in milk thistle are a group of plant compounds collectively known as silymarin.
Now, milk thistle extract, which is the supplement form, contains between 65 to 80% silymarin taken from the milk thistle plant. It's this silymarin that's thought to have antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Protects your liver
Milk thistle is most often promoted for its liver protecting effects. It's normally used as a complementary therapy by individuals who have liver damage due to conditions like alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis, and even liver cancer.
Another use of milk thistle is to protect the liver against toxins like amatoxin, which are produced by the death cap mushroom and is deadly if ingested. In some studies improvements in liver function in individuals with liver diseases who have taken a milk thistle supplement have been shown, suggesting that it could help reduce liver inflammation and liver damage.
One study also found that it may slightly extend the life expectancy of people with cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholic liver disease. But still more research is needed on how it works, milk thistle is thought to reduce damage to the liver caused by free radicals, which are produced when your liver metabolizes toxic substances.
More studies are needed to determine what dose and length of treatment are needed for these specific conditions. Additionally, there's no evidence that it can prevent you from getting these diseases, especially if you have an unhealthy lifestyle.
Prevents age-related decline in brain function
So it's very interesting how milk thistle has been used as a traditional remedy for neurological conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease for over 2,000 years. Now, its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties mean that it is possible neuroprotective and could help prevent the decline in brain function you experience as you age.
In test tubes and animal studies, silymarin has been shown to prevent oxidative damage to brain cells, which could help prevent mental decline. These studies have also seen that milk thistle may be able to reduce the number of amyloid plaques in the brain of animals with Alzheimer's disease.
Now, amyloid plaques are sticky clusters of amyloid proteins that can build up between nerve cells as you age. They are seen in very high numbers in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease, meaning that milk thistle could potentially be used to help treat this difficult condition.
Importantly, there are currently no human studies examining the effects of milk thistle in people with Alzheimer's or other neurological conditions like dementia and Parkinson's. So we don't know if this applies to humans, and we also don't know what dose would need to be prescribed for it to have a beneficial effect.
Protection of bones
Osteoporosis is a disease caused by progressive bone loss. It usually develops slowly over a number of years and causes weak and fragile bones that break easily, even after minor falls.
Now, milk thistle has been shown in experimental test tube and animal studies to stimulate bone mineralization and potentially be protective against bone loss. As a result, some researchers believe that milk thistle is useful treatment for preventing or delaying bone loss in post-menopausal women. However, there are currently no human studies, so its effects in humans kind of remains unclear.
Boosts breast milk production
It's thought milk thistle can help with this because it helps to create more of the milk-producing hormone prolactin. The data is very limited, but one randomized controlled study found that mothers taking 420 milligrams of silymarin for 63 days produced 64% more milk than those taking a placebo. However, this is the only clinical study available.
More research is needed to confirm these results and the safety of milk thistle for breastfeeding mothers. So you can see milk thistle shows potential as a complementary medicine for certain issues, particular liver disease, neurological diseases, and also osteoporosis.
Problem is, many of the studies are small. They're typically done in animals and not humans, and they often have some methodological flaws, which means that we can't really give any firm guidance on this supplement, so just keep that in mind.