Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is one of the most popular herbal supplements in North America and Europe. This herb has become common in North and South America, though it originated in Europe. While it has been used for various ailments through the centuries, it is most commonly thought of as a tonic for the liver.
Milk Thistle History
The historic medicinal use of milk thistle can be traced back as far as Ancient Rome where it was used as a snake bite remedy, a liver tonic and was also given to babies. In the 17th century, the great herbalist Culpepper recommended it for the liver and spleen as well as to dispel kidney stones.
In the 18th century, German researchers started taking a closer look at milk thistle and it's many benefits and today it is best known for it's ability to support and strengthen the liver. It shows promise for treating liver disease as well as protecting the liver from damage from alcohol.
Uses for Milk Thistle
Milk thistle has been seen as useful in treating a number of health issues including cirrhosis, hepatitis, liver disease and even indigestion. Some early research indicates that milk thistle may also be helpful in preventing cancer.
The active ingredient in milk thistle, a substance called silymarin, is a combination of various flavanolignans. It is found in the seeds of the milk thistle plant and has been shown to protect the liver against toxins, as well as helping the liver repair damaged cells and regenerate new ones. It enhances liver functioning, helping it detoxify the body.
Other possible benefits of milk thistle, according to PennState Hershey, include:
- Milk thistle has traditionally been used to stimulate milk production in nursing women, however, there is no evidence to support this.
- Silymarin is a potent antioxidant, more powerful in fact, than even vitamins C and E. It is effective in neutralizing and protecting against the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are the root cause of many diseases as well as premature aging.
- Milk thistle may help to normalize liver function in patients suffering from viral hepatitis, but more research is needed.
- A number of studies indicate that milk thistle helps enhance liver function in cirrhotic patients, even decreasing the number of deaths from this disease. Again, more research is needed in this area.
- It is also a proven tonic for the liver. Milk thistle strengthens the cell membranes of the liver, preventing toxins from penetrating and damaging the cell.
- Silymarin is thought to be a potent antidote for poisoning resulting from ingesting the deathcap mushroom, which causes severe liver failure.
- Milk thistle may be effective in treating damage caused by alcohol consumption and certain medication such as acetaminophen, a common ingredient in several non-aspirin pain relievers, but this is not proven.
Possible Side Effects and Cautions
Milk thistle supplements seems to be a safe, well-tolerated herbal remedy when taken in the recommended dosages. However, milk thistle has been reported to have cause headaches, itching and skin rash and stomach upsets in some patients. In a few rare cases, it has been known to cause diarrhea, appetite loss, heart burn, gas and joint pain.
The chemical constituents of this herb are known to lower blood sugar levels. As such, you should not take it if you suffer from hypoglycemia or diabetes. If you are allergic to ragweed you may also have allergic reactions to milk thistle as they are both in the Asteraceae/Compositae family of plants.
You should ask your doctor before taking milk thistle supplements if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. There is not enough evidence to support it's safety in these instances, though some herbalists say it is totally safe. Milk thistle can also interfere with certain medications that are broken down by the same liver enzymes. Medications that could interact include:
- Certain allergy medications such as Allegra
- Medications used to treat high cholesterol
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Blood thinner
- Some cancer medications
As with any herbal remedy, you should consult with your doctor or herbalist before determining if you should take milk thistle.
Should You Try Milk Thistle Supplements?
Milk thistle is generally regarded as safe as long as it is taken as directed. If your health care professional agrees that milk thistle is safe for you, do not exceed the dose recommended. Taken correctly, milk thistle may help protect your liver from damage.