Milk Thistle for Liver Detox – Fact or Fad?
Many of us have turned to fad detox diets for better skin, weight loss and energy levels, but when it comes to cleansing and detoxing the body, the liver is by far the most important organ to consider.
The liver is responsible for purifying and cleaning the blood and is our primary defence against dietary and environmental toxins. When toxins begin to accumulate in the body, the liver becomes inflamed, causing us to feel sluggish and lethargic. Step forward milk thistle.
The use of milk thistle as a natural liver aid dates back 2000 years thanks to its remarkable ability to protect the liver against toxins. In recent years, the herb has been widely used by the medical community and is routinely prescribed across Europe to treat alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis, and drug and alcohol-induced liver damage.
In today's modern world, can milk thistle really offer a much-needed relief from toxic overload, or is it simply another detox fad?
How Does Milk Thistle Work?
The seeds of the milk thistle plant contain silymarin; a group of three flavonoids called silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin that work together to strengthen the outer membranes of liver cells and reduce the number of toxins entering cells.
This powerful antioxidant also stimulates protein synthesis, which helps to regenerate damaged liver tissues and reduce inflammation.
Milk thistle is one of the most effective herbs at stimulating the production and flow of bile, which helps to break down excess fat and prevents it from accumulating in the liver. Bile is also essential for the elimination of toxins from the body.
How Strong Is the Evidence?
Milk thistle has been well studied and analysed, with over 200 clinical studies conducted over the past 30 years. However, some of these studies have been poorly designed and liver regeneration is a slow process, which makes it tricky to test. The evidence for alcoholic and non-alcoholic liver disease is fairly strong, while for other conditions it is mixed:
- Alcoholic-related liver disease (ARLD): Excessive alcohol consumption is a common cause of liver damage and disease, particularly alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis. There is extensive evidence to show that milk thistle improves liver function and may even increase survival in some patients. The herbs anti-fibrotic properties help to prevent scarring in the liver tissues and reverse the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. In several European countries, including Germany, milk thistle is now prescribed by doctors to treat alcoholic-related liver disease.
- Non-alcoholic liver disease (NAFLD): Fat accumulation is an increasingly common cause of liver damage, primarily due to a combination of high-fat, high-carbohydrate diets and sedentary lifestyles. In fact, nonalcoholic liver disease is now estimated to affect 25% to 30% of the adult UK population. If caught early, a build-up of fat within liver cells can often be reversed, but if left untreated, it can trigger inflammation, fibrosis, hepatitis and cirrhosis. One study compared the effectiveness of silymarin (140mg) against the widely-used liver medications metformin and pioglitazone. Findings showed that participants in the silymarin group had the greatest decrease in blood levels of liver enzymes, which suggests that it offered greater protection against liver damage.
- Liver cancer: Milk thistle potentially has some anti-cancer effects, but findings are mixed. Several large-scale studies have found that milk thistle can improve liver function and reduce the risk of mortality in patients with liver cancer. However, other studies have found little to no benefit. Although milk thistle has not yet been proven effective as an anti-cancer therapy in humans, researchers are ‘optimistically cautious' about its potential.
- Chemotherapy and prescription medications: Preliminary evidence suggests that milk thistle may improve the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy drugs that target ovarian and breast cancer, including cisplatin and doxorubicin. Chemotherapy drugs and prescription medications contain toxins that are broken down in the liver, where they often trigger inflammation. Milk thistle may help to regenerate liver cells damaged by these substances and reduce the harmful effects of chemotherapy on the liver without reducing the effectiveness. However, the evidence is hampered by poor study methods so more reliable clinical trials are required.
- Hangovers: Because milk thistle is known to aid the recovery of the liver from alcohol, many people take milk thistle before and after drinking to reduce the severity of the subsequent hangover. Despite little clinical evidence to support the use of milk thistle for hangovers, the herb remains the go-to hangover prevention technique.
Is Milk Thistle Safe?
Milk thistle has a very gentle nature and is a safe option for the treatment of many liver-related conditions. The extract is generally well tolerated, with only occasional mild side effects reported, including headaches, stomach upset and nausea.
The herb has been used in pregnancy with no toxic effects, however, if you are pregnant or nursing you are advised to consult with your GP prior to using milk thistle. Due to its mild oestrogenic effect, as a general precaution people with a history of hormone-related cancers should use milk thistle with caution, under the supervision of a doctor.
Herbs may interact with certain medications and so should be cleared by a medical professional first. Consult with your GP if you are concerned about the health of your liver, or if you notice a yellowish colour to your skin and eyes, abdominal pain and swelling, itchy skin, dark urine, chronic fatigue, or nausea and vomiting.
How to Detox with Milk Thistle
The liver has a remarkable ability to regenerate given the right environment. While milk thistle certainly shouldn't be seen a cure all liver treatment, there is sufficient evidence to support its use as an effective remedy for those who occasionally overindulge on fatty foods or alcoholic drinks. Milk thistle will help to detoxify chemicals and toxins that accumulate in the body, accelerate the regeneration of liver cells, and improve liver function over time.
It certainly isn't a fad, yet the true extent of its benefits is still to be uncovered. The herb can be used in several different forms, including teas, tinctures, capsules or tablets. When purchasing a milk thistle supplement, look for the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) logo to ensure that the product has been manufactured to a high standard of purity and quality, and has a good concentration of silymarin.
These are safe to take long term when you follow the label instructions. However, you shouldn't rely on herbal remedies alone. For best results, combine milk thistle with a liver cleansing diet loaded with garlic, green tea, apples, avocados, olive oil, lemons and whole grains. Also, try to reduce your intake of fatty, processed and refined foods that place further demands on the liver.
Finally, drink plenty of water and avoid excessive toxins from coffee and alcohol. We'd love to hear about your experience of using milk thistle for liver detox!