This remarkable herb can not only help to restore your liver after an alcoholic night on the tiles, or support you during a detoxification program, but it can medicinally help with a range of chronic conditions relating to liver function including the clearance of hormones, fatty liver and gallstones to helping cancer patients recover quicker following chemotherapy.
The medicinal use of milk thistle can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today there are hundreds of studies that have witnessed the benefits of milk thistle, especially in relation to treatment of the liver. Its common uses include protecting the liver from toxins, including drugs, poisons and chemicals. It also assists the liver in disorders such as cirrhosis and hepatitis and helps to reduce liver damage from excessive alcohol. Other uses include the treatment and prevention of gallstones and helping to clear psoriasis.
A sunny member of the sunflower family with its purple flowers and milky white leaf veins, milk thistles main therapeutic ingredient is silymarin. Botanically known as Silybum Marianum, the shiny black seeds are collected at the end of summer for medicinal use.
Compared to other herbs, milk thistle is one of the most extensively studied and documented herbs in traditional use today. These studies validate its healing powers in relation to liver-related disorders. Silymarin is the collective name for three compounds which constitutes about 4%-6% of the ripe seeds harvested.
Silymarin has the ability to fortify the liver, an incredibly important organ that processes nutrients, fats and other foods. The liver’s other role is to neutralise or detoxify the body from pharmaceutical drugs, recreational drugs, chemical pollutants, including pesticides, additives and preservatives found in foods and alcohol. It does this by preventing the depletion of glutathione, an amino acid-like compound that is central to the detoxification process, by enhancing and strengthening the livers biochemistry. Some studies show that it is also able to increase glutathione concentration by up to 35%. Milk thistle can also act like a gate keeper, limiting the number of toxins the liver can process at any given time.
Fructose the sugar found naturally in fruit and industrially commercialised versions found in manufactured foods, is only processed by the liver. This gives an indication of the toxicity of fructose in the body. Excess fructose in the diet can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, therefore milk thistle can be a supportive aid in helping to reduce the burden on the liver, when dietary intervention is used therapeutically to reduce liver fat.
The herb is also a powerful antioxidant, even more potent than vitamins C and E. It helps to prevent damage from highly reactive free radical molecules that are created as part of the detoxification process and normal metabolism. It is also a regenerator, aiding the body to replace old damaged liver cells with new functioning cells. Milk thistle can be supportive in aiding a range of serious liver conditions including viral infections such as hepatitis and scarring of the liver caused by cirrhosis.
It can also be used in hospital, in injectable form to combat the life-threatening effect of poisonous plants that have been ingested, such as fungi. New research is looking into milk thistle as a weapon against skin cancer. Researchers in Cleveland, Ohio are completing studies to assess the active ingredient as a weapon to reduce tumours which are a result of ultra-violet radiation.
Milk thistle is an effective aid for recovery from bouts of alcohol, from general drinking habits to serious over consumption. It is a good protectant and regenerator for those who are recovering from alcohol abuse, because alcohol depletes glutathione.
For cancer patients, milk thistle can be used to limit the drug induced damage of chemotherapy and it helps to speed up the recovery process following treatment, by quickening the removal of toxic substances that can accumulate in the body.
The herb has also been used to reduce inflammation and help to slow down the increased cell turnover associated with psoriasis. It may also be useful in women suffering with endometriosis, a common cause of infertility, because milk thistle can aid the liver in processing oestrogen, which at high levels can make the pain and symptoms worse. It may also be beneficial in other conditions that are affected by the clearance and processing of hormones.
Milk thistle is also beneficial in preventing and treating gallstones, by helping to improve the flow of bile from the liver to the gall bladder and to the intestines where it helps to digest fats.
How to take milk thistle
The recommended dose for milk thistle is up to 200 mg of standardised extract which contains up to 70%-80% silymarin three times a day. Depending on your individual needs, lower doses are also often very effective. You can also combine milk thistle with other herbs and nutrients such as dandelion, choline, inositol and methionine. Often these complexes are referred to as ‘liver complexes’ or ‘lipotrophic factors’ which refers to the combined effectiveness at metabolising fats and reducing build-up of fatty substances in the liver. When taking milk thistle to alleviate liver damage from excess alcohol, avoid all alcohol based tinctures, as they will weaken the resolve to break the cycle of consumption.
Milk thistle is most effective when taken between meals. The herb itself can be sprinkled over cereals or added to smoothies or soups.
The benefits are usually experienced within one to two weeks, although long term treatment is required for chronic conditions. The herb is also safe for breast-feeding and pregnant women, please check with your doctor.
Milk thistle teas usually contain very few of the herbs liver protecting ingredients, this is because silymarin in not very soluble in water, therefore teas are not conducive to therapeutic treatment.
Although there is no known interactions with other medications, it is important to remember that any type of liver disease requires careful evaluation and treatment by a doctor. Always check with your doctor before taking supplements that may interfere with, or enhance medical prescriptions. There are virtually no side effects that have been attributed to the use of milk thistle, however for some individuals it may have a slight laxative effect for a couple of days.