Milk thistle, sometimes also known as Mary thistle and holy thistle, is a plant native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. It belongs in the same plant family as the daisy, and has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Silymarin is the main component of milk thistle seeds, but the terms ‘milk thistle’ and ‘silymarin’ are sometimes used interchangeably.
Silymarin has been researched to support the liver and new cell growth. The group of flavonoids (silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin) that make up the chemical silymarin are “thought to help repair liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances … [the flavonoids] also protects new liver cells from being destroyed by these same toxins.” When we talk about milk thistle supplements or milk thistle in alternative or natural medicine, we are typically referring to the work done by silymarin.
There are a number of ways that people use milk thistle to support liver function. It is used by people with hepatitis, cirrhosis and gallbladder problems. But is there any evidence to support milk thistle liver detox? Can milk thistle support a healthy liver? If you’re looking at any form of a milk thistle liver detox program, then reading the evidence below may be helpful before you start.
Milk Thistle for Liver Challenges
The liver is the organ most commonly associated with milk thistle. Liver detox is something that those suffering from cirrhosis (or scarring) of the liver may be investigating. There are many causes of cirrhosis, but chronic hepatitis C and alcohol abuse are the primary risk factors. A systematic review of studies where milk thistle supplements were used attempted to address if and how milk thistle might “alter the physiologic markers of liver function” and “Reduce mortality or morbidity, or improve the quality of life in adults with alcohol-related, toxin-induced, or drug-induced liver disease, viral hepatitis, cholestasis, or primary hepatic malignancy.”
Because of study limitations, clinical efficacy could not be shown; however, a “possible benefit” was shown for “improvement in aminotransferases and liver function tests.”
Studies have also shown that for people with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis, milk thistle may increase survival, though because of study flaws, the University of Maryland cautioned that more research is necessary to valid these claims.
Milk Thistle and Hepatitis
Some evidence has also suggested that milk thistle may be used to support those diagnosed with hepatitis. Hepatitis C is another disease of the liver, one that can cause inflammation and swelling in the liver. Chronic hepatitis C is a major risk factor for cirrhosis.
Evidence is mixed but one study looked at 16 patients who had not responded to other treatments (specifically, interferon and ribavirin therapy), and found that “milk thistle significantly reduced the viral load of hepatitis C. In 7 of the subjects the virus decreased to undetectable levels after 14 days of therapy.”
Milk Thistle for Other Uses
Milk thistle may also support and protect the liver from damage resulting from chemotherapy. Silymarin “protects liver and kidney cells from toxic effects of drugs, including chemotherapy.” In fact, not only has milk thistle been used to protect the liver during chemotherapy, there is “strong preclinical evidence” that silymarin has “hepatoprotective and anticarcinogenic effects.”
As with all supplements, if you are considering a milk thistle supplement, talk to doctor about any potential drug or supplement interactions. The Natural Healthy Concepts store has a wide variety of supplements to support your liver health.
Did you know about all of milk thistle’s potential benefits? What was the most surprising?