Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum), is a flowering plant that is well-known for its ability to promote liver detoxification. This is primarily due to an active compound in milk thistle known as silymarin, which acts as an antioxidant by reducing free radical production. Scientists think this creates a detoxifying effect, which is why milk thistle may be beneficial for liver problems. One 2016 study found that milk thistle improved diet-induced liver damage in mice. While more scientific evidence is needed to prove that milk thistle benefits human livers in the same way, many researchers believe that it does, and people have been using milk thistle effectively for this purpose for centuries.
It is regularly used as a complementary therapy by people who have liver damage due to conditions like alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis and even liver cancer. It’s also used to protect the liver against toxins like amatoxin, which is produced by the death cap mushroom and is deadly if ingested. Studies have also shown improvements in liver function in people with liver diseases who have taken a milk thistle supplement, suggesting it could help reduce liver inflammation and liver damage.
The Health Benefits of Milk Thistle
While milk thistle is most known for its ability to aid in liver detoxification, it also has numerous other health benefits. One 2015 study found that milk thistle helped improve inflammatory skin conditions when applied to the skin of mice. Milk thistle was also found to have antioxidant and anti-aging effects on human skin cells in a laboratory environment in another study.
A 2006 study suggests milk thistle may play an important role in keeping cholesterol levels down. It found that cholesterol levels were lower in people taking milk thistle to treat diabetes than those taking a placebo. Initial animal research conducted in 2016 found that silymarin caused weight loss in mice that were fed a diet intended to cause weight gain. This suggests milk thistle may also be beneficial for those looking to lose weight. Another study on mice found milk thistle extract helped to reduce insulin resistance, which is a problem for people with type 2 diabetes.
The Neuroprotective Properties of Milk Thistle
Milk thistle has also been used as a traditional remedy for neurological conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s disease for over two thousand years. Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties mean that it is also possibly neuroprotective and could help prevent the decline in brain function you experience as you age. In test-tube and animal studies, silymarin has been shown to prevent oxidative damage to brain cells, which could help prevent mental decline. These studies have also seen that milk thistle may be able to reduce the number of amyloid plaques in the brains of animals with Alzheimer's disease. Amyloid plaques are sticky clusters of amyloid proteins that can build up between nerve cells as you age. They are seen in very high numbers in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease, meaning that milk thistle could potentially be used to help treat this difficult condition.
The Benefits of Antioxidant Effects of Milk Thistle
It’s been suggested that the antioxidant effects of silymarin may have some anticancer effects, which could be helpful for people receiving cancer treatment. Some animal studies have shown that milk thistle could be useful for reducing the side effects of cancer treatments. It may also make chemotherapy work more effectively against certain cancers and, in some circumstances, even destroy cancer cells.
Milk thistle is a safe supplement that shows great potential as a complementary therapy for various conditions. It has been used primarily in the treatment of liver diseases and for liver detoxification, but also has numerous other uses, including use in cancer treatment, diabetes, neurological conditions and weight loss.