What Are the Health Benefits of Milk Thistle?
There are so many herbal and natural supplements on the market that it can be difficult to know which ones might be right for you, or which are beneficial versus having a placebo effect. One such herbal supplement you may have heard of is milk thistle. So, what are the health benefits of milk thistle, if any? Other questions we’ll answer in this article include:
- Is milk thistle good for your liver?
- Are there harmful side effects of milk thistle?
- What should you expect with milk thistle?
- What does research say?
- What are the best ways to use milk thistle?
- How much milk thistle should you take?
- What are the top-rated milk thistle products available on Amazon?
What Is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle is an herbal, natural remedy that may help treat certain conditions and in particular, it may be good for liver health and liver function. Milk thistle comes from a flowering plant, that’s in the same family as daisies. Native to the Mediterranean region milk thistle contains an active ingredient called silymarin.
- Milk thistle is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiviral properties.
- The name comes from the liquid that comes from the leaves of the plant when it’s crushed. That liquid is somewhat like milk.
- Milk thistle can be used as a supplement in different forms. Typically the seeds and leaves of the plant are made into a powder and then made into a pill or extract.
- There is also milk thistle in tincture form, and one of the most popular ways to consume milk thistle is as a tea.
Is Milk Thistle Good for Your Liver?
One of the primary reasons people use milk thistle or explore the health benefits of milk thistle is for their liver. The idea is that silymarin in milk thistle helps keep toxins from attaching to the liver, and it can also reduce free radicals which can harm healthy cells.
As far as the health benefits of milk thistle for the liver, results in scientific research have been somewhat mixed thus far.
Studies suggest silymarin can help reduce inflammation and improve cell repair. This means there is the potential for milk thistle to be helpful for people who have symptoms of certain liver diseases including:
- Liver cancer
- Fatty liver disease
However, some people think that since the health benefits of milk thistle are good for the liver, it can also help with the liver disease hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a viral infection, and at this point, research has shown no benefits for people with this disease who supplement with silymarin.
On the other hand, research does indicate milk thistle may help people who have liver disease related to alcohol.
Specific things to know about the use of milk thistle for liver diseases include:
- Free radicals are produced when the liver metabolizes toxic substances like alcohol, and milk thistle may reduce damage from free radicals.
- One study showed milk thistle slightly increased the life expectancy of people with cirrhosis of the liver because of alcoholic liver disease.
- Results have been mixed—some studies haven’t shown milk thistle to have health benefits for people with liver disease.
What Are the Other Health Benefits of Milk Thistle?
The following are some of the other areas where milk thistle has been studied to determine the health benefits it may have.
Declines in Brain Function Related to Aging
For more than two thousand years milk thistle has been used as an herbal remedy for certain neurological conditions. These conditions include Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. The theoretical benefits of milk thistle for brain function may be related to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Milk thistle may be neuroprotective as a result of those properties.
In certain animal and test tube studies, silymarin has demonstrated some effectiveness and preventing oxidative damage to brain cells, which could reduce mental decline.
Research has also shown milk thistle may reduce something called amyloid plaques, found in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease. The studies showing this effect have only looked at animals at this point.
While milk thistle has shown benefits in animal studies in terms of brain function, the big question researchers will need to answer in the future is how well it’s absorbed and if enough would be able to cross the blood-brain barrier. If so, what dosages would be needed for that to happen?
Due to the antioxidant health benefits of milk thistle, some doctors and researchers have theorized it could be helpful for people who are receiving cancer treatments.
Animal studies have shown it might reduce side effects of cancer treatment, and in some cases, it could help chemotherapy be more effective at combatting cancerous cells.
All the current evidence comes from animal studies, however. There aren’t any meaningful human studies yet.
Blood Sugar and Diabetes
Milk thistle is being explored for its health benefits related to managing type 2 diabetes and blood sugar levels. Several studies show the potential for milk thistle to be beneficial for people with diabetes.
One of the more recent studies looking at the health benefits of milk thistle was published in 2015 in a journal called Phytomedicine. In this study, 40 people with diabetes were treated with either the active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, or a placebo. They were treated for 45 days.
When the study ended, the group treated with silymarin showed more improvements in their antioxidant capacity. They also showed more reduction in inflammation compared to the placebo group.
This research suggests milk thistle may help people with diabetes by reducing oxidative stress which is one of the primary contributors to complications that develop from diabetes.
Other small clinical trials in recent years have shown the potential for milk thistle to help keep blood sugar under control and prevent kidney damage progression related to diabetes.
Milk Thistle and Heart Health
Milk thistle may be good for heart health as well as potentially helping with liver function. Milk thistle can lower bad cholesterol levels, which are LDLs. When LDLs are lowered, it may help prevent the development of heart disease.
To this point, milk thistle’s effects on heart health have only been studied looking at people with diabetes, and they do often have high cholesterol. Currently, research isn’t definitive as to whether milk thistle would have the same effects in people without diabetes.
Milk thistle can usually be taken with medications designed to lower cholesterol, although speak with your health care provider first. Elevated liver enzymes are a side effect of some cholesterol-lowering medicines, and milk thistle may be a natural way to lower liver enzymes.
Milk Thistle and Fatty Liver
One of the areas of particular interest for many people who want to learn more about the health benefits of milk thistle relates to fatty liver. Fatty liver disease is becoming an increasingly common condition. Fatty liver affects an estimated 25 percent of the global population.
Fatty liver disease is associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity as well. Untreated fatty liver disease can lead to serious liver disease and a slew of other health problems.
What Is Fatty Liver Disease?
Fatty liver disease refers to a condition where too much fat accumulates in the cells of the liver. Fatty liver is also known as hepatic steatosis.
The liver is the second-largest organ we have, and it’s responsible for processing all the things that we eat and drink and filtering toxins from our blood.
Fatty liver is a condition that’s reversible in the early stage. If it progresses without proper treatment, it can ultimately lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
What Causes Fatty Liver?
The most common reason for fatty liver is alcohol abuse. Alcohol use disorder and excessive alcohol use are by far the most frequently identified reason people develop fatty liver. It’s also possible that other factors can contribute as well including:
- Being overweight
- Eating a diet with a lot of processed sugar
- Low physical activity levels
Fatty liver occurs because the body is creating too much fat and it can’t be metabolized quickly enough. That excess fat then stores itself in the liver cells, and it accumulates which leads to the disease.
Fatty liver disease can also be a side effect of certain medications which include:
- Valproic acid
The Types of Fatty Liver Disease
There are two general types of fatty liver which are alcoholic and nonalcoholic.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is, as the name implies, not related to alcohol use. There are different forms of nonalcohol fatty liver disease including acute fatty liver of pregnancy, which is rare and can be life-threatening.
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is one of the first phases of liver disease related to alcohol. Drinking excessively damages the liver, prohibiting the liver from breaking down fats because of that damage.
If someone stops drinking, they can reverse the fatty liver disease, and if someone can abstain from drinking for six weeks, the fat often disappears. However, if someone continues to drink heavily, it can lead to something called alcoholic steatohepatitis, which can then lead to cirrhosis.
What About Milk Thistle For Fatty Liver?
So, is milk thistle good for fatty liver? Recent research indicates that milk thistle does have some properties that can protect the liver against toxins.
- One study found that silymarin, the substance in milk thistle, does seem to provide invigorating benefits for the liver.
- This was especially true at higher doses taken several times a day.
- There was some indication in research that the use of milk thistle may have led to a better prognosis for people with fatty liver and a reduced likelihood of progression to cirrhosis.
While milk thistle may have some benefits for the liver and particular conditions such as fatty liver, there are some things to remember. First, you should only follow medical advice from your doctor. There are also likely lifestyle changes that you would need to make in addition to using something like milk thistle if you have a liver disorder or disease. You shouldn’t try to treat fatty liver disease or any other condition on your own, without guidance from your health care provider.
Does Milk Thistle Have Side Effects?
While there are health benefits of milk thistle, you may be wondering if there are also side effects. A few things based on what is known currently about the health benefits of milk thistle and its side effects include:
- Women who are breastfeeding or pregnant should not use milk thistle
- If you’re allergic to ragweed, you shouldn’t take milk thistle because you may have an allergic reaction
- Milk thistle can act similarly to estrogen, so some women shouldn’t take it including women with breast, uterine and ovarian cancer
- Women with fibroids or endometriosis should avoid milk thistle as well
- Milk thistle can interact with certain medications, so speak with your doctor before using it
- Mild side effects can include upset stomach, diarrhea, and indigestion
How To Take Milk Thistle and Where to Buy Milk Thistle
If you’ve spoken about the health benefits of milk thistle with your doctor and you believe it’s right for you, how do you take it and where do you buy milk thistle?
First, if you are going to be using a milk thistle extract, look for products that have Silybum or silymarin standardized to 70 to 80 percent, according to Dr. Weil.
Typically, the recommended dosage is two capsules of a standardized form of milk thistle taken two or three times a day, but follow the instructions on the label.
You can also take milk thistle as a tea, although it may be less potent than a supplement form. Typically you can take milk thistle as long as you feel necessary if your health care provider gives you the green light.
Where to Buy Milk Thistle
You can buy milk thistle at many grocery stores and health food stores as well as specialty stores. Amazon is also a great resource for milk thistle. We compiled a list of some of the top-rated milk thistle herbal supplements on Amazon, along with some features of each.
NatureWise Liver Cleanse Premium Detox Review
NatureWise Liver Cleanse Premium Detox is a product that has hundreds of customer reviews on Amazon and a 5-star rating. This herbal formulation is intended to help detox and protect the liver, according to the makers.
Along with milk thistle, it contains artichoke extract, dandelion extract, and reishi mushroom, all of which are antioxidants.
NatureWise Liver Cleans Premium Detox details include:
- The prices are around $29.99 for 120 capsules
- Features specific protective Chinese herbs with the claim that they help protect the liver from toxins and filter impurities from the environment and the things we consume
- Customer reviews cite that since they started using this milk thistle product, they felt less tired and less bloated
- This formulation contains ginger and black pepper, which help with better absorption
- 80 percent silymarin milk thistle extract
- 95 percent curcuminoids turmeric root extract
If you go through the reviews for this product, you’ll see that users feel like it’s brought some great benefits for them.
Toniiq Ultra High Strength Milk Thistle Capsules
We selected this product to include on this milk thistle review because of first and foremost, customer reviews. Second, the fact that it’s a very high potency version of milk thistle according to the product makers. The following are some things to know about this milk thistle product from Amazon.
- Current cost is around $17.97, and Prime shipping is available with this milk thistle supplement on Amazon
- Toniiq Ultra High Strength Milk Thistle capsules have 500 mg of high-quality milk thistle each
- Higher concentration of milk thistle can help with bioavailability and absorption, meaning more effectiveness
- Each serving contains 400 mg of silymarin, significantly higher than most milk thistle supplements
Integrative Therapeutics Super Milk Thistle X Liver Support Formula
The Integrative Therapeutics product is Amazon’s choice currently for milk thistle supplements. This product also has 5-star customer reviews across the board. It’s available in a 60-count and 120-count bottle.
If you take a look at reviews, you’ll see for example that one customer said he had a surgeon who recommended the product for him. Features of this product include:
- Cost is currently around $40.50 for a 120-count bottle, and Prime shipping is available
- Made with standardized 80 percent silymarin
- Includes artichoke and licorice root extract as well as dandelion leaf extract
Other well-rated Amazon milk thistle products include:
- Nature’s Bounty Milk Thistle 250 mg 200 Capsules (Pack of 2)
- Organic Milk Thistle Extract 9000 mg
- BulkSupplements Milk Thistle Extract Powder (100 grams)
- Liver Cleanse & Support Supplement
- Milk Thistle Tincture, Alcohol-Free 2000 mg.
- Wildcrafted Milk Thistle Seed Powder-1 lb.
- Ayurvedic Detox Tea (Milk Thistle, Fennel, Ginger, Peppermint and Licorice Tea)
- Buddha’s Herbs Premium Organic Milk Thistle Tea with Dandelion Root
- Traditional Medicinals Organic Roasted Dandelion Root Herbal Leaf Tea
- Body Cleanse Tea Kit—40+ Servings of Health Detox Tea Assortment with 10 Honey Sticks
Summing Up—What Are the Health Benefits of Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle has been used in medicine for more than 2,000 years. It continues to be used thanks to its potential health benefits, particularly for the liver. Some of the possible health benefits of milk thistle include cleansing and protecting the liver, antioxidant properties to fight free radical damage, and the potential to help control symptoms of diabetes or control blood sugar.
If you’re interested in learning more about how the health benefits of milk thistle could be good for you, speak with your doctor.
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