Perhaps best known for boosting liver function as a natural detox aid, milk thistle also has anti-inflammatory properties that improve the digestive system. It can even help you achieve your weight-loss goals. So, come with us as we explore how milk thistle benefits weight loss, liver detox, and more, including a natural way to manage type 2 diabetes.
What Is Milk Thistle?
This detoxification herb is also known as Silybum marianum (its scientific name), silybin, and silibinin, among other terms of endearment like lady's thistle, Marian thistle, and holy thistle. With spiky leaves and pinkish-purple flowering dandelion-like puffs, it's long been used in alternative medicine to help treat liver problems, anything from hepatitis C to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The health benefits of milk thistle are attributed to its flavonoid compounds: apigenin, kaempferol, naringin, quercetin, taxifolin, and silymarin, each with remarkable antioxidant properties.
Originating in the Mediterranean and related to the Asteraceae family of ragweeds, daisies, chrysanthemums, and marigolds, milk thistle is even used as a supplement to help lower blood sugar levels and prevent heart disease.
But what does the science say and what are the side effects (if any) of taking a milk thistle supplement? Let's find out!
Milk Thistle Benefits: Weight Loss, Liver Detox and More
Most often found in tea or supplement form, milk thistle is commonly used to help out with liver issues like jaundice and cirrhosis. There are some indications that milk thistle may also help lower cholesterol levels and manage type 2 diabetes. Here's what clinical trial investigations have revealed.
1. Aids Healthy Liver Cells
The use of milk thistle is often associated with liver health because that is indeed one of its strong points.
An animal study from 2016 suggests that supplementing with milk thistle improves the liver damage caused by poor diet. Now while that's not a perfect indication that it would have the same effects on human livers suffering from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease caused by poor diet and lack of exercise, it's nevertheless a very important indication that the milk thistle link to liver health is not entirely baseless.
Researchers have made an educated guess in theorizing that milk thistle does indeed improve human liver health, mainly because the active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, works to reduce free radical damage as an antioxidant. By lowering harmful inflammation and helping the liver function without damage, milk thistle imparts a detoxifying effect.
While more specific research is needed to confirm the degree to which milk thistle can help in serious conditions like liver disease, it's nevertheless a relatively harmless natural supplement backed by studies suggesting that it may help your liver thrive. Feel free to ask your doctor for medical advice regarding milk thistle for liver improvement if you're at all concerned about your top detox organ.
2. Improves Insulin Sensitivity
There are several factors at play in type 2 diabetes cases. Either there's too much sugar in the blood that isn't getting utilized for energy properly, or the insulin that the body should be producing is not being synthesized, or the insulin is there but your body's become resistant to its effect. Insulin resistance is one of the top dangers for those with type 2 diabetes, an indication that it's not being effectively managed, and may start to cause irrevocable damage to the body, including foot amputation and death.
This 2016 animal study shows that milk thistle can help improve the body's response to the hormone insulin, a strong indication that milk thistle may help support diabetes management, with or without pharmaceutical medication. Be sure to ask your doctor if you are on diabetes medication before starting any other supplement, including milk thistle.
3. Boosts Bone Strength
Findings from a study published in BioMed Research International may be of particular interest for menopausal women, as the bone loss caused by lower amounts of estrogen makes osteoporosis so much more common in older women than men. Milk thistle tea has been shown to help prevent bone loss in cases of estrogen deficiency-induced osteoporosis.
Because the study was so narrow in focus, there is no direct evidence that milk thistle extends this bone-strengthening effect on other causes of bone loss, but as a natural supplement it may be worth including in your morning cup of tea on the real chance that it could help prevent the loss of bone density, strength, and mobility.
4. Relieves Symptoms of Allergic Asthma
Thanks to the anti-inflammatory impact of silymarin, those who supplement with milk thistle experience reduced levels of inflammation in the body, and nowhere is that more important than in cases of asthma triggered by an allergic reaction.
An animal study conducted in 2012 showed that milk thistle helps reduce airway inflammation in cases of allergic asthma. It's important to note that natural remedies are often far underfunded for research in favor of pharmaceutical products that are proprietary and have better potential to make manufacturers money, which is why much of what we have to go on in terms of milk thistle health benefits is limited to animal studies.
The only caution here is that milk thistle may itself cause an allergic reaction in someone who's allergic to other plants in the Asteraceae/Compositae families of plants like daisies and ragweed. It would be counterproductive to put oneself at risk of anaphylaxis on the off chance that milk thistle might reduce some mild inflammation, so if you have or suspect an allergy to this class of plant, avoid milk thistle and ask your doctor for other, safer natural remedies suggestions.
5. Supports Supple Skin
Milk thistle may help support skin health when applied topically as milk thistle oil.
A 2015 study found that mice with inflammatory skin conditions found relief, while another laboratory study on human skin cells showed that milk thistle had an anti-aging effect. Milk thistle oil may support youthful, supple skin when applied directly—this would be an easy experiment to confirm for yourself, unlike unseen benefits to your inner organs.
6. Strengthens the Immune System
Just as milk thistle has the potential ability to improve the body's response to insulin, it may help strengthen your immune response as well. One 2016 study showed milk thistle improved immunity in broiler chickens, but luckily we don't have to rely solely on animal models here, as an older study from 2002 found the same positive impact on immune responses in humans. This not only confirms the immune-boosting abilities of milk thistle, but also goes to show that results observed in non-human animals can indeed translate to human health.
7. Improves Cognitive Power
Silymarin has been attributed with the power to extend lifespan and reduce oxidative stress in animal cases of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes premature senility in middle-aged and older adults, with potential root causes in oxidative stress levels and protein buildup in the brain.
While this is one small study on a disease scientists still don't fully understand, it may be all the more important to rely on any positive impact made by medicines and natural supplements—at this point, anything could be the key that makes a significant difference in the life of an Alzheimer's patient.
8. Inhibits the Spread of Cancer
Milk thistle extract may help limit the growth of cancer cells in cases of colorectal cancer. However, there are also indications that milk thistle may have an estrogen-like effect, which in cases of menopausal bone loss is what makes it effective, but in cases of uterine, ovarian, or breast cancers may cause complications and ought to be avoided. Luckily, there's a long list of other foods and natural products that may help fight cancer.
9. Lowers Cholesterol Levels
High cholesterol levels, whether diet-induced or not, significantly increase a person's risk factors for heart attack and stroke. This human study from 2006 found that milk thistle helps to lower cholesterol levels in people with diabetes, which means it can help improve the heart health of diabetic patients and reduce the impact of that disease, all without the major side effects associated with pharmaceutical fare.
10. Promotes Weight Loss
This 2016 animal study found that the active ingredient in milk thistle helped spur weight loss in mice fed an obesity-inducing diet. With uncontrolled weight gain becoming an ever-increasing health concern in the modern world due to poor dietary choices and sedentary lifestyles, any aid for safe, sustainable weight loss could not only save lives that would otherwise be lost to deaths from heart disease (the leading cause of death across the world among men and women), but could also save tons of money and suffering involved in preventable health conditions like type 2 diabetes. More research is needed to confirm that the effects of milk thistle lead directly to weight loss, but sometimes every little bit can help.
Milk Thistle Side Effects
We've mentioned already that milk thistle may have an allergy-causing component for anyone allergic to plants like ragweed. We've also pointed out that the possible estrogen-mimicking effects of milk thistle may make it inappropriate for anyone who has had hormone-linked conditions like endometriosis or cancers of the uterus, ovaries, or breasts.
Milk thistle, like other natural supplements, are unregulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and do not have any standardized dosage instructions. Be sure to purchase only from a reputable source that is transparent about their product's origin and processing procedures, and follow the guidelines for consumption that come with those products. If you are already receiving treatment or are taking medication for other health concerns, consult with your health care provider before adding milk thistle to your regimen.