Milk Thistle: Your Personal Bodyguard Against Toxins and Disease
The world seems to be getting more toxic by the minute – including in places you never thought possible.
Furniture and clothing are coated with flame retardants and stain protection treatments.1 Some water supplies have been found to have trace amounts of arsenic and many cities still add fluoride to their water systems.2,3
The things you eat and drink are not safe either, thanks to herbicides and fungicides in the soil that then run off into the water supply, as well as meat animals being pumped full of drugs through injection and their food.
Even the air you breathe is contaminated with toxins from car exhaust, pollution from factories, and more. All of this contributes to the toxic load your body must deal with each day. Thankfully, you evolved with a special secret weapon—your liver—that filters toxins from your body and eliminates them.
However, the sad reality is that there’s an astronomical amount of toxins to handle on a daily basis, not to mention the occasional (or not so occasional) additional assault of alcohol, medication, or even a poor diet that causes your liver to go into overload.
Fortunately, it is easy to give your liver the support it needs with a safe, inexpensive herb that has been around for centuries.
But, before we get to that, let’s first explore the toxic load on your body and how the liver handles these poisonous substances.
An Increase in Diseases…
Let’s consider the increase in autoimmune diseases that are so prevalent today.4 In the past, doctors used to scoff at diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. However, today these conditions are not only well established, but gaining a foothold and affecting more and more Americans.5 Clearly something just isn’t right.
Similarly, learning disabilities, asthma, cancer, and other illnesses have all been connected to toxins in the body.6 Other signs of toxins may be less severe, such as acne or other skin problems. Even something as simple and common as a hangover is a sure sign that your body has had more contamination than it can handle.
Unfortunately, the medications prescribed for these and other health issues may contribute to the toxic load on the body, causing a heavier burden on the liver. In fact, over-the-counter pain relievers are known to cause liver damage in high doses.7 And if you drink alcohol, the damage from these drugs may be even worse.
The Liver’s Job…
A healthy liver defends your body against all of these endless toxins. As the second largest organ in your body, the liver is responsible for processing your food and drink into energy, as well as filtering out toxins from your blood that can make you sick.
And boy, does it have a big job.
At any given time, your liver holds about 13 percent of your blood supply. This is important because the liver breaks down the nutrients and chemicals in your blood to make it easier for your body to process them.
The liver also produces bile, which carries away waste and breaks down fats in your body. Toxins in your body, whether from medications, alchohol, or accidental environmental exposure, are cleared out of your blood by the liver.
Plus, the liver plays a major role in immune function and many other critical physiological systems in the body. It is also known to play a role in over 500 vital functions in your body. The liver is, quite literally, your personal body guard against toxins and disease.
But this three-pound organ can only take so much abuse before its performance starts to suffer. And while it would be nice to never come into contact with toxins, it is virtually impossible to avoid all the invisible toxins in our environment.
Fortunately, we can give our livers a boost, thanks to milk thistle. Milk thistle has been used for thousands of years to strengthen the liver and detoxify the body. But does it work?
From Greece to the German Commission E…
The use of milk thistle to strengthen the liver has been recorded as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Roman army doctor Dioscorides was one of the first to use milk thistle medicinally, recommending it for the treatment of snake bites. Centuries later the famous British herbalist Culpepper recommended milk thistle for treating liver and spleen disorders, claiming that it cleansed the blood.8
It wasn’t only herbalists who recommended milk thistle, however. Monasteries also grew milk thistle to treat liver disorders, and by the 1500s, German scientists and herbalists were taking a closer look at this herb.
Many recommended milk thistle to patients with liver disease. One 19th century German doctor, Johannes Gottfried Rademacher, even created a tincture from milk thistle seeds that he used to treat his liver patients.
German scientists eventually figured out that those seeds actually contained silymarin, a mixture of compounds that restore and protect liver cells
In fact, the impact of silymarin on the liver was so impressive, the German Commission E (an herbal medicine guide for licensed medical doctors detailing the safety and effectiveness of herbs that they can prescribe) recommends milk thistle for dyspeptic complaints, liver damage from toxins, and cirrhosis of the liver.9 It is also used as a supportive therapy for chronic inflammatory liver conditions.
Real Science Shows Real Benefits…
Anecdotal evidence is all well and good, but does science support the idea that milk thistle supports liver function? Or is it just fiction, like Popeye and his spinach?
Milk thistle has been called the most well-researched plant in the treatment of liver disease because of hundreds of studies delving into the benefits of this herb.10
For example, silymarin works as an antioxidant and helps to reduce free radicals. It also inhibits the formation of scar tissue and, like any good bodyguard, it acts like a blockade by preventing toxins from binding to liver cells.11
Milk thistle is also found to prevent inflammation and liver damage and can help the liver regenreate cells that have been damaged by every day environmental toxins, including pollution, chlorine exposure, and even a poor diet.12
This is great news in terms of protecting yourself from toxic damage, but what about those people suffering from liver disease? Fortunately, research shows that milk thistle is highly effective for these folks, too.
While more research is certainly needed, current studies show that milk thistle does indeed show promise as a liver support supplement. One randomized, placebo-controlled study followed 105 patients for more than two years to see how silymarin would affect the symptoms of acute hepatitis.13
Patients were given 140 mg of silymarin, or a vitamin placebo, three times a day. Scientists found that silymarin produced quicker resolution of biliary retention symptoms such as jaundice, dark urine and scleral icterus (when the whites of the eyes become yellow). They concluded that silymarin could be effective in improving the symptoms of acute clinical hepatitis.
In another double-blind, randomized study involving 170 patients with cirrhosis who were given either 140 mg of silymarin three times a day or a placebo, researchers actually saw a reduction in mortality with no side effects reported after taking silymarin three times a day over two years.14
A smaller study involving 60 patients assessed the effectiveness of using silymarin to prevent liver damage from the use of psychotropic drugs.15 During testing, patients took 400 mg of silymarin twice a day (or a placebo) for 90 days with assessments being taken at 15, 30, 60 and 90 days, as well as a final assessment one month after the conclusion of the test. And guess what? Silymarin was shown to reduce liver damage.
Milk Thistle Safety…
So with all that positive research, there has to be a downside, right? Well, actually there isn’t. Even if you take milk thistle for years, you are unlikely to have any side effects, aside from the possibility of a slight laxative effect. But hey, that may be a plus for some people.
That said, there are a few but rare number of people who experience gas and bloating, diarrhea, indigestion, anorexia, or loss of appetite, but this is not common. As with any supplement, you’ll want to watch for unusual symptoms and discontinue use if they are a problem.
If you are allergic to ragweed (or other plants in the Asteraceae/Compositae family), you’ll want to avoid milk thistle. You should also steer clear if you have a hormone-related cancer, endometriosis or uterine fibroids, as milk thistle can alter the estrogen in your body, thereby speeding up the cancer and making other hormone-related illnesses worse.
Another thing to keep in mind is milk thistle helps your liver process medications more quickly, so this may have an affect on how well certain medications work in your body.
Do not take milk thistle with your medications, and if you take antipsychotics, birth control pills, hormone replacements, or Phenytoin (a seizure medication), you should not take milk thistle without your doctor’s guidance. Other medications may be affected as well, so be sure to discuss this with your doctor.16
How to Take Milk Thistle…
Milk thistle can be taken as capsules, but you can also take it as an infusion or extract. Recommended doses vary depending on the form you take, so read the label carefully. A typical adult dose for milk thistle capsules is two to three 500 mg capsules, three times a day. Look for a standardized preparation that contains 70 to 80 percent silymarin. It is wise to consult an herbalist to determine the dose that is best for you.
If you’re ready to defend yourself from the toxins that lurk everywhere today, milk thistle is ready to be your personal bodyguard defending your liver so it can work harder for you. No matter if you want to prevent liver damage or heal from it, milk thistle is the herb for the job.
Lastly, remember to keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. The Dangers of Brominated Fire Retardants.
3 Fluoride Action Network. The Case Against Fluoride.
4 What caused the increase of autoimmune and allergic diseases: A decreased or an increased exposure to luminal microbial components? World J Gastroenterol. 2007 Feb 28:13(8):1306-7.
5 American Autoimmune Related Disease Association, Inc. Autoimmune Diseases on the Rise: AARDA Implores Office of Research on Women’s Health/NIH to Make Autoimmune Diseases a Top Priority for the Next Decade.
7 WebMD. Safe use of OTC Pain Relievers.
8 Herbal Legacy. History of Milk Thistle.
9 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, et al., eds.: The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines, Austin, Tex: American Botanic.
10 PubMed. Milk thistle studies.
11 Abenavoli L, et al. Milk thistle in liver disease: past, present, future. Phytotherapy Research, 2010 Oct;24(10):1423-32
12 Pradhan S.C., et al. Hepatoprotective herbal drug, silymarin from experimental pharmacology to clinical medicine. Indian J Med Res. 2006 Nov;124(5):491-504.
13 El-Kamary SS, et al. A randomized controlled trial to assess the safety and efficacy of silymarin on symptoms, signs and biomarkers of acute hepatitis. Phytomedicine. 2009 May;15(5):391-400
14 Ferenci P, et al. Randomized controlled trial of silymarin treatment in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. J Hepatol, 1989 Jul:9(1):105-13.
15 Palasciano G, et al. The effect of silymarin on plasma levels of malon-diadehyde in patients recovering long tern treatment with psychotropic drugs. Curr Ther Res. 1994;55(5):537-45.
16 University of Maryland Medical Center. Milk Thistle.
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