What is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle comes from the Silybum marianum plant known by many common names, including blessed thistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, St. Mary’s thistle, holy thistle, Scotch thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle, and variegated thistle. Milk thistle used to only grow in Southern Europe through Asia, but it now exists everywhere in the world. It has a distinctive prickly appearance with purple flowers.
The leaves of the milk thistle plant have white veins running through them. Legend claims these veins came from a drop of the Virgin Mary’s milk, hence the “milk” part of its name and why so many other names for the plant reference Mary. Traditional Chinese remedies and Ayurvedic cultures used milk thistle to support liver function, protect the liver from environmental toxins, and promote breastmilk production.
What is Silymarin?
The bioactive compound in milk thistle reflects its Latin name, silymarin. Silymarins are powerful antioxidants with antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Silymarin contains silibinin, also called silybin, one of the seven flavonolignans found in milk thistle. Silybin accounts for 50-70% of silymarin. Individuals often use the terms milk thistle and silymarin reciprocally.
Potential Milk Thistle Benefits
Milk Thistle + Liver
Milk thistle may support liver health in several ways. Animal studies examining how milk thistle affects injured livers note an increase in protein synthesis to help regenerate liver tissues. The silymarin content also exerts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. The liver produces free radicals when it metabolizes toxic substances, which can induce damage. Silymarin helps reduce the production of free radicals and lipid peroxidation. It also helps maintain glutathione levels, one of the most important antioxidants found in cells. Silymarin may help detoxify the liver following the consumption of alcohol or toxins like cap mushrooms.
Milk Thistle + Phosphatidylcholine (Lecithin)
Phosphatidylcholine synergizes with milk thistle by improving the bioavailability of silybin. One study noted the combination of milk thistle and phosphatidylcholine exerted antioxidant effects on liver and gastric cells. The combination effectively reduced oxidative stress by impeding free radicals.
Milk Thistle + Phosphatidylcholine + Vitamin E
One study found a combination of milk thistle, phosphatidylcholine, and vitamin E
supported liver health by improving liver enzymes.
Potential Milk Thistle Skin Benefits
Oxidative stress and inflammation play a role in acne development. Free radicals damage the skin, overwhelm existing antioxidants, and cause inflammation. Researchers hypothesized that milk thistle improves acne by reducing inflammation, inhibiting free radical damage, and boosting levels of glutathione. The study noted that participants taking silymarin saw an increase in glutathione levels by 271% and a reduction in the number of acne lesions by 53% after eight weeks. It may also protect the skin against damaging chemicals and UV rays.
Milk Thistle as a Galactagogue
Early research indicates milk thistle may act as a galactagogue, meaning that it enhances breast milk production. One human study found that mothers taking silymarin for two months produced 64% more milk than mothers taking a placebo. However, individuals should consult with a doctor before taking milk thistle for milk production, as there is only one clinical trial studying its effects on breastfeeding mothers.
Other Potential Milk Thistle Benefits
Milk thistle may act as a neuroprotector and support cognitive health due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also protects the brain against oxidative damage. Experimental studies have also found that milk thistle stimulates bone mineralization and may help reduce bone loss.
Potential Milk Thistle Side Effects
Most individuals can take milk thistle extract without adverse effects. Some individuals may experience bloating, gas, or nausea. However, milk thistle may produce an allergic response in individuals with allergies to other plants in the same family as milk thistle (Asteraceae), such as ragweed, dandelions, daisies, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and other thistles. Individuals with diabetes should also consult with their doctor before taking milk thistle extract as it may lower blood sugar levels. Milk thistle may interact with some medications, such as those processed by the liver. Speak with a physician before starting any new supplements.
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