Milk thistle is considered an annoying weed by many, yet is also a powerful herb that has been used for at least a few thousand years. Just a few traditional uses for milk thistle include treating liver disorders, snakebites, and melancholy.
Today, milk thistle is considered one of the most powerful herbs for liver health. It can help your liver and whole body to detox and has many more benefits besides.
Here's more about the properties of milk thistle and how you can use it to boost wellness.
What is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a prickly, thorny plant (hence the name "thistle") that blooms with purple flowers that are actually quite pretty. It's closely related to another medicinal herb called blessed thistle and shares some of the same qualities.
It's not hard to find milk thistle in the wild because it spreads quickly and is even considered invasive in certain areas.
In fact, even though the entire plant is edible, you probably don't want to grow milk thistle yourself unless you know for sure that you can keep it contained. You can, however, look for it in pesticide-free areas, and many farmers are only too happy to get rid of it.
Both the leaves and the seeds are used in herbal medicine, but the seeds are typically considered more powerful because they contain a high amount of silymarin, a plant compound with many beneficial properties.
To give you an idea, silymarin and one of its constituents, silibinin, have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, liver-protective, antiviral, and anticancer properties. (1)
Top Benefits & Uses of Milk Thistle
Supportive & Cleansing for the Liver
Milk thistle is considered a hepatic and cholagogue, which means that it's protective of liver health and also stimulates bile production. Bile is the substance that helps your body break down fats and stimulates detoxification.
Traditionally used for liver cleansing and as part of formulas for a full body detox, studies have found that it also has powerful liver-protecting effects and may even be able to help reverse some types of liver damage. (2)
It's thought that the main compound in milk thistle, silymarin, is mainly responsible for these benefits, which is why it's often used as a concentrated extract for liver health.
Aids Digestion and Kidney Function
Because it stimulates bile production in your liver, milk thistle is beneficial for digestive health as well liver health. This is because bile is an important part of the digestive process. It helps break down fat, protects intestinal lining, and can even reduce intestinal inflammation.
As a bitter herb, milk thistle also helps with the production of digestive enzymes, further aiding the digestive process.
To add to this, silymarin has been shown to have a similar healing effect on the kidneys as it does on the liver. It can help kidney cells to repair and may be able to help treat diabetic kidney disease, although research is still ongoing. (3)
Stimulates Breast Milk Production
Another of the most traditional uses for milk thistle is to help stimulate breast milk production. This makes it an herbal galactagogue, which is basically any substance that can increase breast milk supply.
Milk thistle is thought to work by stimulating the hormone prolactin, which is one of the main hormones involved in lactation. Studies are limited but at least one found that taking milk thistle increased milk production by 64% more than the placebo group. (4)
Contains Antioxidants with Anticancer Potential
Along with its other benefits, the silymarin found in milk thistle is also a potent antioxidant.
Antioxidants are vital for overall health because they protect your body from free radical damage, and they may have special cancer-fighting power as well.
Human studies have yet to confirm these results, but there's still a lot of potential for milk thistle to be part of the fight against cancer.
Has Anti-Aging Effects on the Skin
Not only are there many uses for milk thistle internally, it also has several benefits for your skin.
The antioxidant content of milk thistle, including silymarin, has shown potential for protecting skin from UV-induced oxidative stress and inflammation. It has also shown an anti-aging effect in human skin cells and may even help protect against skin cancer. (7)(8)
Another study found that participants who took a silymarin extract experienced a 53% reduction in acne lesions, so it could prove useful for skin disorders as well. (9)
May Be Protective of Brain Function
Milk thistle has shown great potential for being protective of brain health and also possibly preventing cognitive decline and brain disorders like Alzheimer's.
Some studies have shown that it can help to prevent oxidative damage in the brain (something that causes mental decline) and reduce amyloid plaques, which are associated with the development of Alzheimer's. (10)(11)
May Help with Blood Sugar Management
Another potential benefit of milk thistle is that it could help with the control or prevention of diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels and improving insulin sensitivity. (12)
In fact, one study has already shown that a silymarin extract was able to improve the glycemic profile of diabetics over a four month period. However, more research is needed to determine just how much it can help. (13)
Using Milk Thistle
Strong on its own, milk thistle also work well with other liver herbs such as dandelion and burdock- like in this Liver Cleanse tea.
Many of the studies done on milk thistle used a standardized silymarin extract rather that the whole leaves and seeds. This type of supplement usually comes in capsule form and can also be effective. Look for one that is made from pure milk thistle extract.
Milk thistle usually doesn't have any side effects and is well-tolerated by most people. The most common issue is digestive upset, especially if you start out taking too much at once.
It may also cause an allergic reaction, especially in those allergic to members of the daisy family.
Milk thistle may interact with certain medications, so talk with a health professional before taking it if you are using any.
Milk Thistle for Detox & Beyond
Though one of the most popular uses for milk thistle is to cleanse and aid the liver (which it's very effective at), there are many more ways you can benefit from this powerful herb.
Use it for digestive health, to get more antioxidants, and to support breast milk supply during lactation. And hopefully, you'll soon consider milk thistle as much more than just a weed!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.