Milk thistle is an ancient plant with a pinkish purple flower that was used historically as medicine. Today, it’s a popular supplement for supporting liver health. The high levels of antioxidants, including the flavonoid silymarin responsible for many of milk thistle’s disease-preventing benefits. You can take milk thistle as a capsule or herbal extract, though you can also brew milk thistle tea. Here are five health benefits of milk thistle proven by research:
1. Supports Liver Health
As detoxifier of your blood, the liver is constantly processing toxins. These toxins can damage the liver if it’s not protected by antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, which are damage-causing molecules from toxins. Some antioxidants, such as glutathione, are produced naturally by your liver, though this production declines with age. In addition to supplying antioxidants itself, milk thistle has also been found to boost the liver’s own production of glutathione.
The most powerful active substance in milk thistle is silymarin — an antioxidant shown to protect liver cells against mutation and damage. It acts as a toxin blockade by preventing toxins from binding to receptors on liver cell membranes. These findings suggest milk thistle could be a useful agent in helping to prevent liver cirrhosis, liver disease, and potentially liver cancer.
2. Protects the Aging Brain
Amyloid plaque buildup in the brain is the major cause behind the progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As the brain ages, the natural detoxification mechanisms can fail to remove all the amyloid plaque buildup during sleep. Milk thistle may be able to help by reducing amyloid plaque in the brain, as it’s been shown to do in animal studies.
While there are no human studies on milk thistle’s effects on people with neurodegenerative diseases, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of milk thistle could assist in mitigating the effects of aging on the brain.
3. Supports Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
The active substance in milk thistle known as silymarin can also help control blood sugar levels. A review published in the Journal of Diabetes Research looked at five clinical trials involving 270 patients. It concluded that silymarin significantly reduces blood sugar levels and could potentially help diabetics and prediabetics with glycemic control. Drinking milk thistle tea with a meal may help prevent blood sugar spikes, and supplementing with milk thistle regularly could lower your risk of developing diabetes.
4. May Help Fight Cancer
The silymarin in milk thistle may help in preventing the development of cancer. It works by supporting the body’s natural immune response against cancer cells and by directly inhibiting tumor growth. In test tube studies, silymarin has been shown to protect against breast, prostate, bladder, skin, colon, kidney, and lung cancers. Human trials are lacking, but antioxidants like silymarin found in milk thistle show promise in research done outside the body.
5. Increases Breast Milk Production
Silymarin in milk thistle is a galactagogue, which means it increases the production and flow of breast milk in lactating mothers. In a 2-month study, mothers taking 420 mg of silymarin daily increased their breast milk production by 86% compared to mothers taking a placebo. The study also confirmed silymarin supplementation did not affect the quality of the milk supply, which means it’s a great remedy for lactating mothers struggling with low milk supply.
6. Improves Acne
Acne treatments are typically topical products applied to the face. Interestingly, oral supplementation with milk thistle has been linked to improved acne symptoms. In one study on 56 patients, just eight weeks of milk thistle intervention reduced acne lesion count by 53%. The researchers attributed these results to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of milk thistle.
7. Supports Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women
Supplementing consistently with milk thistle could help menopausal and postmenopausal women prevent osteoporosis — the thinning of bone density that puts your bones at high risk of fracturing and breaking. Postmenopausal women are at the highest risk of osteoporosis because the loss of estrogen is linked to a loss of bone density.
The silymarin in milk thistle makes it a phytoestrogen, which means it acts on estrogen receptors and has estrogen-like effects when estrogen levels are deficient. In a mouse model of osteoporosis caused by estrogen deficiency, oral administration of milk thistle was found to reduce bone loss.
Milk Thistle for Liver Health and Beyond
While milk thistle is best known for its liver health benefits, it’s also a natural remedy that can help with acne, low breast milk supply, high blood sugar, and potentially even age-related cognitive decline. Milk thistle also helps prevent cancer, osteoporosis in women, and illnesses of the liver. Some milk thistle supplements are concentrated in silymarin, while other capsules contain the whole powder ground. As with any herb, it’s important to stay within the recommended daily dose written on the product label.
Note that even natural substances can sometimes have adverse effects. To ensure your safety, it is essential to speak with a healthcare professional before using herbal products or supplements, especially if you have a medical condition, are taking other medications or supplements, or are pregnant.
- “Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future” by Ludovico Abenavoli, Raffaele Capasso, Natasa Milic and Francesco Capasso, 7 June 2010, Phytotherapy Research.
- “Silymarin Attenuated the Amyloid β Plaque Burden and Improved Behavioral Abnormalities in an Alzheimer’s Disease Mouse Model” by Nakaba Murata, Kazuma Murakami, Yusuke Ozawa, Noriaki Kinoshita, Kazuhiro Irie, Takuji Shirasawa and Takahiko Shimizu, 23 November 2010, Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry.
- “Silymarin in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” by Luminita Voroneanu, Ionut Nistor, Raluca Dumea, Mugurel Apetrii and Adrian Covic, 1 June 2016, Journal of Diabetes Research.
- “Silibinin – A Promising New Treatment for Cancer” by Catherine Wing Ying Cheung, Norma Gibbons, David Wayne Johnson and David Lawrence, 2010, Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry.
- “Clinical efficacy, safety and tolerability of BIO-C (micronized Silymarin) as a galactagogue” by Francesco Di Pierro, Alberto Callegari, Domenico Carotenuto and Marco Mollo Tapia, December 2008, Acta Biomedica Atenei Parmensis.
- “Effects of Oral Antioxidants on Lesion Counts Associated with Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Patients with Papulopustular Acne” by Ahmed Salih Sahib, Haidar Hamid Al-Anbari, Mohammed Salih and Fatima Abdullah, 2012, Journal of Clinical & Experimental Dermatology Research.
- “Antiosteoclastic Activity of Milk Thistle Extract after Ovariectomy to Suppress Estrogen Deficiency-Induced Osteoporosis” by Jung-Lye Kim, Yun-Ho Kim, Min-Kyung Kang, Ju-Hyun Gong, Seoung-Jun Han and Young-Hee Kang, 28 May 2013, BioMed Research International.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice or a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, it is important to consult with a qualified healthcare provider.