Milk thistle and its presumed effects on your health

Sebastian Grimm | 02.08.2021

Milk thistle and its presumed effect on your health

How milk thistle detoxifies and strengthens your liver

Milk thistle has been valued for detoxifying and strengthening the liver for centuries. It is used to treat numerous diseases. Learn more about this plant and its presumed effect on your health here!


Milk thistle was known as a medicinal plant in ancient times, but was discovered in Central and Northern Europe. The healer Hildegard von Bingen described its effects in her writings and contributed to its popularity. Milk thistle is said to have numerous positive effects on the body, as it is used as a therapeutic agent for the liver. Extracts from the thistle are said to detoxify the liver and stimulate the regeneration of fresh liver cells. Since the liver is the central detoxification organ of our body and is involved in very many metabolic processes, a course of treatment with milk thistle could have an effect on the whole body. It is therefore recommended by many naturopaths not only for the treatment of liver diseases, but also, for example, against digestive problems, skin diseases or to support a diet.


History and botany of milk thistle

The name milk thistle goes back to the Virgin Mary. According to history, the plant evolved from a common thistle after a few drops of the Virgin’s breast milk were dropped on its leaves.
Botanically, the thistle, like the dandelion and the sunflower, belongs to the group of composite plants. The milk thistle is naturally native to the Mediterranean region, but it has been cultivated in Central Europe for centuries. Only the seeds of milk thistle are used for medicinal purposes, not its leaves.


Silymarin, the main active ingredient of milk thistle

The active ingredient responsible for its medicinal effects is called silymarin. Silymarin is a so-called flavonoid complex. Flavonoids are secondary plant substances. Silymarin consists of the flavonoids silybin A and B, silychristin and silydianin. This explanation is important because the entire flavonoid complex is considered crucial to the effects of the medicinal plant. High-quality holistic products contain the full spectrum of flavonoids from milk thistle in sufficient quantities. Naturally, the amount of silymarin in the seeds is 1 to 3 %. In addition, the seeds contain 20-30% fat, about 30% protein, mucilage, and other secondary plant compounds.


Note: In addition to high-dose dietary supplements and medications, there are also foods containing milk thistle, such as tea. Silymarin is poorly soluble in water, so tea made with milk thistle is not considered effective enough for therapeutic benefit. Foods with milk thistle enjoy great popularity and are offered as detox cures, but they are said to have only a weak effect at most. High-dose finished preparations in the form of capsules with standardized active ingredient content are therefore recommended for treatment.


The presumed effect of milk thistle on the liver

Therapy with extracts of milk thistle seeds is used for various liver diseases. For example, the plant is used for detoxification as a liver cure. Its detoxifying effect is also said to bring benefits when the liver is severely stressed or damaged by toxins or harmful substances such as medications, alcohol or drugs. The same is said to be true for viral diseases of the liver such as hepatitis B or C, which lead to acute or chronic liver inflammation.
By taking silymarin, the liver should be able to be protected from toxins. The active ingredients are said to stabilize the cell membranes and thus prevent toxins from entering the liver cells. Thus, the liver is strengthened and can better fulfill its actual tasks.

The protection of the liver by milk thistle is described as very strong in naturopathy and the plant is even used in high doses in cases of acute poisoning by the death cap amanita. In the case of mushroom poisoning, the active substances from the medicinal plant are administered intravenously.


Scientific studies on milk thistle and its effects

The number of studies on this plant is now large. Its effect has been scientifically established in a number of studies. However, the number of studies is currently insufficient to provide clear scientific evidence of its efficacy as a medicinal plant. The effects described are mainly based on experience in naturopathy. Accordingly, companies do not advertise milk thistle products in the EU with promises of healing. Therefore, this text only gives an overview of the use and presumed effects in practice.


Other hoped-for effects

Since the liver is involved in almost all metabolic processes in the body, impaired liver function has a wide range of effects. Accordingly, the described healing effects of milk thistle are manifold and will be further investigated in the future. The entire body would benefit from detoxification of the liver.
Naturalists and biologists believe that the medicinal plant stimulates digestion and metabolism and supports the liver.

Liver diseases can also have an impact on the skin. For this reason, a course of milk thistle is also used in practice for various inflammatory skin diseases, such as acne, as well as eczema and psoriasis.
Milk thistle could possibly protect the liver from the harmful side effects of medications. For example, it is already recommended to protect the liver during chemotherapy. This positive effect has already been observed in several studies. By supporting the metabolism, the medicinal plant could also bring benefits in weight loss.


Side effects and interactions

In general, milk thistle preparations are well tolerated. If the dosage is too high, mild side effects may occasionally occur. These often affect the gastrointestinal tract, as milk thistle stimulates digestion and can have a mild laxative effect. Much rarer are hypersensitivity reactions such as allergic reactions or skin rashes.


Interactions and advice for specific patient groups

Milk thistle probably influences the metabolism of the liver and could thus strengthen its performance. Due to such an effect, some medications could be broken down more quickly in the liver. Therefore, if you need to take medications regularly, you should talk to your doctor before taking them. If necessary, the doctor will adjust the medication.
Special conditions also apply to diabetics. Milk thistle can have a blood sugar-lowering effect, so that sugar-lowering medication or insulin may have to be dosed differently.


Milk thistle dosage

The dose depends on the therapeutic goal. In general, it is recommended to take milk thistle supplements several times a day to maintain flavonoid levels at a constant level. In the case of high-dose preparations that are to be taken only once a day, it is recommended that they be taken in the evening with a meal. The explanation is that the liver is particularly active at night.
Unless otherwise prescribed by a physician, the effective daily dose for adults is between 200-500 mg of silymarin. This recommendation is based on the amounts used in various scientific studies and empirical values from natural medicine. For the desired protection of the liver after taking drugs, strong medications and toxins, even a daily dose of up to 800 mg of silymarin is recommended. This maximum dose is taken in 3-4 doses throughout the day for 2-5 weeks.


Dosage of milk thistle for a long-term cure

For a long-term cure, for example, for the intended detoxification of the liver, many practitioners use lower doses, for example 70 mg three times a day for a period of twelve months.
For chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, the recommendation in practice is often a much higher 160-800 mg of silymarin, divided into 2-3 doses per day. In this case, the intake may even be taken for up to two years, after consultation with the attending physician.
For the treatment of acute poisoning with green button mushroom, the active ingredient is injected on the first day of poisoning, the administration is carried out every 6 hours. However, this has less relevance in everyday use.


Some products also contain artichoke or cynarin, as do our products at Nature Basics. Cynarin is a bitter substance that occurs naturally in the artichoke. The bitter substances of the artichoke are said to support the effect of milk thistle extract. Why? They stimulate the flow of bile and thus promote fat digestion. Since fat digestion is often impaired in liver disease, these combination preparations may be useful. They are also recommended in practice against flatulence and bloating.


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