Health Benefits of Milk Thistle
We've all experienced the uncomfortable bloated feeling after a meal and the regret of going back for an extra helping. Or the groggy nauseous sensation the morning after a few drinks. A growing number of people are finding relief from overindulgence in the form of an ancient herb called milk thistle.
Civilisations have long been aware of the healing benefits certain herbs can provide, and the first recorded medicinal use of milk thistle dates back two thousand years. Nowadays, it has become a popular liver aid and hangover cure, and is one of the most medicinally used plants in the world, with several European countries prescribing it for alcoholic cirrhosis, drug and alcohol-induced liver damage, and chronic hepatitis.
What is Milk Thistle?
Native to Europe and Asia, milk thistle is now grown around the world for its medicinal benefits. The leaves hold a milky sap that gives the plant its name, and the seeds contain a compound called silymarin, which is thought to be responsible for many of the plants' health benefits, particularly those relating to the liver, kidneys and gallbladder.
The liver is a remarkable organ which provides over 500 different functions and filters blood coming from the digestive system before passing it to the rest of the body. However, an overworked liver can result in toxic waste materials passing into the blood. Milk thistle is a natural remedy that can help the liver to eliminate excess toxins and stimulate protein synthesis to aid the production of new liver cells.
Milk Thistle Benefits
Many of the clinical trials investigating potential milk thistle benefits for health have focused on liver function:
- Liver Function: Silymarin blocks the damage caused by harmful toxins and removes these toxins from liver cells. It may also help the liver to repair itself by promoting the growth of new liver cells, while its anti-inflammatory properties can benefit those with liver inflammation or hepatitis.
- Liver Cirrhosis: Several studies have shown that milk thistle can improve liver function and reduce the risk of death from liver disease. However, many of these studies have been criticised for their poor design and therefore further large-scale placebo-controlled trials are required.
- Hangovers: To avoid common symptoms caused by hangovers, take one milk thistle tablet before you start drinking and another the following morning.
- Heavy Eating: Milk thistle helps to stimulate bile production and promotes proper digestion, which may offer some relief from symptoms of overindulgence, such as indigestion and an upset stomach.
- Seasonal Allergies: Hay fever is often caused by high levels of toxic accumulations in the liver which trigger immune responses. There is some evidence that silymarin may help to reduce the body’s production of proteins called immunoglobulins, which are partly responsible for this immune response.
Milk Thistle Hangover Remedy
When a couple of drinks suddenly turns into a lot more, the resulting headache and nausea can be debilitating. While milk thistle is not a miracle cure for hangovers, many people find that it helps to significantly reduce symptoms, making them more bearable. It is thought that silymarin works by helping the body to process and eliminate alcoholic toxins from the liver faster. So if you plan to drink, take one tablet before you start and then another before you go to bed or in the morning.
How Much Should I Take?
Milk thistle is available in several different forms, including liquid extracts, tinctures and supplements. The standard dose is 420mg per day divided into three smaller doses and has been shown to be safe to take for up to 41 months. Higher doses have been used in clinical trials, but more data is needed to establish the long-term effects.
Milk thistle supplements are standardised to concentrate the beneficial ‘active’ compounds with the seeds, particularly silymarin. Most preparations are standardised to around 70% to 80% of silymarin, the remaining 20% to 30% is polyphenols and fatty acids such as linoleic acid.
Side Effects and Interactions
Milk thistle has a very gentle nature and rarely causes side effects. However, some people have reported mild indigestion, gas and diarrhoea during the first few days of use. If you are allergic to the ragweed plant family, which includes chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies, milk thistle may trigger an allergic reaction.
The herb may interact with certain medications, particularly those for hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer or ovarian cancer, so consult with your healthcare provider prior to supplementation if you are unsure. Milk thistle supplements should not be taken during pregnancy or lactation due to insufficient evidence regarding its safety.