Milk thistle is a well-known liver plant. However, it can be helpful in almost every chronic disease because it has anti-inflammatory, immune-stimulating, and antioxidant effects. We explain how to use and dose the milk thistle.
Milk thistle – A medicinal plant that saves lives
Milk thistle is such a powerful liver medicinal plant that its main active ingredient – silibinin – can protect the liver from the deadly toxin of the death cap mushroom. This fungus is still responsible for most fatal fungal accidents. In order to achieve the highest possible silibinin doses, the substance must be administered intravenously in this case. But without milk thistle, many more people would still die from mushroom poisoning today than was the case before the plant was used.
By the way, the milk thistle is called milk thistle because it is dedicated to Mary. Apparently, when the baby Jesus was breastfeeding, a few drops of breast milk fell on the leaves of an ordinary thistle. The thistle, which people usually don’t like very much, felt honored and from now on it no longer formed pure green leaves, but green-white colored ones. Everyone should be reminded at the sight of what a wonderful thing had happened to her – the thistle.
Related to dandelion and sunflower
Milk thistle is native to the Mediterranean region, but has also been cultivated in Central Europe for many centuries – formerly in monastery gardens, today on a large scale for medicinal purposes. Occasionally, however, they can also be found in the wild.
Like the dandelion, the sunflower, or the aster, the milk thistle belongs to the daisy family. And just like the dandelion, the seeds of the milk thistle also fly up and away with a little parachute when it’s windy.
The seeds of the milk thistle are effective, not the leaves
The leaves of the milk thistle do not seem to have any special healing properties, at least there is no evidence for this. Only the milk thistle seeds are used medicinally.
The first reports of the use of milk thistle seeds as a liver therapy date back to the 18th century. There are indications from the 19th century that they were also used for bile and spleen problems. Today, milk thistle is probably the best-studied liver medicinal plant.
Silymarin: The flavonoid complex
Milk thistle is a flavonoid drug, which means its main active ingredients come from the flavonoid family. Flavonoids are secondary plant substances. Various flavonoids are contained in the seeds of the milk thistle:
- Silybin A and B (= silibinin)
Together they form the flavonoid complex called silymarin. The seeds consist of about 1 to 3 percent silymarin, 20 to 30 percent fat, and about 30 percent protein. It also contains mucilage and other secondary plant substances.
Flavonoids do not stay in the body for long, so they are excreted quickly and should therefore be taken regularly (preferably several times a day) over a more extended period of time. However, they are largely heat-stable, so they are only slightly reduced during cooking, but the silymarin is poorly water-soluble, which is why drinking tea from the milk thistle seeds makes little sense (see also below). If you want to fully enjoy the healing properties of milk thistle, you should use high-dose ready-to-use preparations.
The properties and effects of milk thistle
Milk thistle is one of the antioxidant medicinal plants. It thus neutralizes free radicals and reduces oxidative stress. The plant not only has an antioxidant effect itself but also stimulates the body’s own antioxidant production so that the glutathione level increases.
In addition, milk thistle activates the body’s own detoxification ability of the liver, namely phases I and II.
In addition, the milk thistle acts…
- overall cell-protecting,
- antihepatotoxic (neutralizes liver toxins),
- hepatoprotective (protects the liver cells),
- liver regenerating,
- antifungal (e.g. against Candida albicans),
- cholesterol-lowering and
- cholagogic (= choleretic and cholekinetic, see next section).
The effect on the bile
Choleretic means that the substance in question promotes the formation of bile in the liver. Cholekinetic, on the other hand, means that the emptying of the gallbladder is stimulated. The milk thistle can do both and is therefore considered a cholagogue. It is said to be a cholagogue. The sialagogic, i.e. bile flow-promoting effect can be increased if several cholagogues are combined, e.g. B. the milk thistle with turmeric (curcumin).
The effect on the liver
The effects of milk thistle on liver health are exceptionally well-researched. For example, we know that silymarin stabilizes the lipid structures of the liver cell membranes and in this way prevents substances that are toxic to the liver from penetrating the liver cell.
At the same time, silymarin promotes the regeneration of the liver and the regeneration of healthy liver cells. The flavonoid complex also increases blood circulation in the portal vein and counteracts meteorism (bloating) within a short period of time. Milk thistle is also said to be able to inhibit the fibrotic (connective tissue) transformation of liver cells.
If medication is taken, milk thistle can – at least partially – protect the liver from protecting against damage caused by comments, e.g. B. when taking paracetamol. But the plant can also protect against the side effects of alcohol and radiation therapy to a certain extent).
The milk thistle also supports the liver in its detoxification function, especially if other liver plants are also used, such as e.g. B. the dandelion and the artichoke, since the herbal medicinal substances reinforce each other in their effects.
Naturopathic liver therapy
However, healing a damaged liver takes time. After all, the damage rarely happened overnight, but rather over many years. It is also not enough to simply take a milk thistle supplement. Other liver-healing measures should also be implemented:
Nutrition for the liver
- Better to eat too little than too much
- Eat low in fat and sugar-free
- Eat cooked and raw foods separately
- Eat fruits and vegetables separately
- Always eat fruit on an empty stomach and for yourself. Fruit can only be combined with green leafy vegetables (e.g. in a smoothie). All other combinations can lead to fermentation processes and put a strain on the liver.
- 1 fasting day per week with carrot or beetroot juice or raw grated apples
Other measures to support the liver include the following:
- Harmful things are left out (fast food, alcohol, unnecessary medicines/drugs).
- With regular therapeutic and juice fasting, one should never forget the milk thistle, so that the toxins released during the fasting cannot damage the liver.
- Carry out a colon cleanse, because the following applies: the cleaner and healthier the colon, the less work the liver has to do!
- Apply Liver Wrap:
Liver wrap with yarrow
Liver wraps are warm pads in the liver area. They ensure intensive warming of the liver, stimulate blood circulation, and in this way also the metabolism of the liver. A yarrow liver poultice is made like this: Pour 1 liter of hot water (it no longer boils) over 4 tablespoons of yarrow herb and let it steep for 10 minutes.
Then you pour the infusion through a sieve and dip a cloth into it. Wring it out and place it on your upper right abdomen. Put a towel over it and wrap a warm scarf around it. If you want, you can put a hot water bottle on top. You now rest for half an hour, then remove the wrap, but then rest for another half hour (and continue to make sure that the liver area is kept warm).
Effect on the stomach and intestines
The milk thistle is a component of important recipes, e.g. B. from Iberogast, a tincture that can be used for irritable stomach and irritable bowel. Other ingredients include chamomile blossoms, caraway, lemon balm, peppermint, liquorice, bitter candytuft, and celandine. The mixture has an antispasmodic and toning effect and, according to studies, brings about an improvement in symptoms in 90 percent of cases.
With an upset stomach u. milk thistle (together with chamomile) can be used to protect the liver from those substances that have spoiled the stomach.
Initial investigations also showed that silibinin initiates the suicide process of Candida albicans so that milk thistle can also accompany the therapy in the case of an intestinal or vaginal yeast infection.
Milk thistle can even be used to protect against colon cancer. We have already explained in a related article that milk thistle can block the growth and metastasis of colon cancer. As we report in another article, the colon cancer-protective effect of milk thistle can be enhanced by curcumin – the plant substance from turmeric – so a combination of the two agents could make sense for this indication.
Effect on skin cancer
As early as August 2002, initial studies showed that milk thistle could become an important candidate for the prevention and treatment of skin cancer. Since oxidative stress is one of the key factors in the development of skin cancer, researchers are feverishly looking for effective antioxidants that can be used sensibly in this area. Silymarin from milk thistle is one such powerful antioxidant.
Model tests have shown that the plant substance reduces oxidative stress on the skin, inhibits the division of skin cancer cells, blocks cancer-promoting messenger substances, and can strengthen the body’s antioxidant system.
In January 2005, researchers confirmed the preventive effect of milk thistle on skin cancer. They wrote that sunscreen alone was not enough to protect against skin cancer. The additional intake of silymarin, on the other hand, could increase the protection of the skin.
Effect on prostate cancer
Milk thistle preparations are also increasingly used in the prevention and therapy of prostate cancer since silymarin is particularly good at inhibiting the growth of prostate cancer cells. At the same time, the substance seems to support the effects of conventional medicine, so milk thistle is a good remedy that can be combined with chemotherapy – not least because milk thistle can also reduce chemotherapy-related liver damage.
Effect on breast cancer
In some places on the net one reads that “no high-dose substances with (potential) hormonal effects should be used” in the case of hormone-sensitive breast cancer, whereby milk thistle is also mentioned. However, the body of evidence that would justify such a warning is, in our view, sparse:
In a cell study from 2011, for example, silibinin, an active ingredient from milk thistle, was even able to promote metastasis and inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.
In a 2006 study, animals genetically engineered to easily develop breast cancer were given silymarin (milk thistle complex) at a level equivalent to 0.3 percent of their body weight, in addition to a cancer-causing agent. Only a slight increase in carcinogenesis was observed in the silymarin group compared to the group that received no silymarin.
0.3 percent would correspond to a person who z. B. weighs 65 kg, 195 g silymarin. However, dietary supplements generally contain around 400 mg of silymarin per daily dose, so we would assess the study results mentioned with very, very great caution.
A 2016 review from the Journal of Biomedical Research lists numerous milk thistle cancer studies showing beneficial effects on cancer. Almost all of them were carried out with much lower dosages than in the above-mentioned only study showing a negative trend.
Another interesting source is this 2010 study, in which a table shows nine cell studies and two animal studies in which milk thistle was anti-cancer in breast cancer.
In conclusion, we would say that milk thistle extracts or individual substances isolated from them should not be taken in 100-gram portions (which hardly anyone will do for reasons of cost alone), but that taking the usual doses will have a cancer-inhibiting effect.
Milk thistle protects the liver from the side effects of chemotherapy
In 2010, the journal Cancer reported that milk thistle can help treat liver inflammation, which often occurs when patients are receiving chemotherapy for cancer. Inflammation of the liver often means that the treating physicians have to reduce the dose of chemotherapy, which in turn reduces the success of the therapy.
dr In a randomized, placebo-controlled study, Kara Kelly of Columbia University in New York gave 50 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) a milk thistle supplement or a placebo for four weeks. At the start of the study, all of the children were already suffering from chemotherapy-related liver inflammation, which was evident from elevated liver values.
When the liver values were checked again four weeks after taking the milk thistle or the placebo, they had developed much better in the milk thistle group than in the placebo group. The milk thistle preparation showed no side effects and – despite its antioxidant properties – did not reduce the effect of the chemotherapy.
Milk thistle cream in radiation therapy
Another conventional medical treatment option for cancer is radiation therapy. More than 80 percent of breast cancer patients suffer from skin inflammation as a result of radiation therapy. 10 percent of them even have third-degree skin damage. If such side effects occur, this often leads to discontinuation of therapy, which is why ways of preventing such skin damage are always being sought.
For this purpose, a study from August 2011 on 101 patients examined the prophylactic effect of a milk thistle cream (Leviaderm) in comparison to the usual treatment with creams containing panthenol. It turned out that the milk thistle cream was able to significantly increase the protection of the skin:
- Thanks to the milk thistle cream, skin damage occurred much later than with the conventional cream.
- Just under 10 percent of patients in the milk thistle group suffered grade 2 damage, compared to over 50 percent in the other group.
- After completion of the radiotherapy, even 23 percent of the milk thistle patients remained completely symptom-free. In the control group, it was only 2 percent.
- Grade 3 damage was virtually non-existent in the milk thistle group. In the other group, however, this severe damage was seen in 28 percent of the patients.
Milk thistle alleviates the side effects of conventional medical therapies
As was read in June 2003 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, many cancer patients use alternative measures, such as milk thistle preparations, in particular, to alleviate the side effects and long-term effects of conventional cancer therapy.
In March 2015, a randomized and placebo-controlled study of tuberculosis patients showed that after taking milk thistle (70 mg silibinin three times a day for 8 weeks) the subjects tolerated the typical tuberculosis medication better, discontinued it less often (than usual) and therefore the therapeutic successes were also greater.
Effect on cardiovascular diseases
Milk thistle also seems to have positive effects on vascular health. Diabetics in particular suffer more frequently from cardiovascular diseases due to a vascular wall disorder (endothelial dysfunction). However, milk thistle lowers ADMA levels. ADMA (asymmetric dimethylarginine) is a substance that is otherwise damaging to vascular function.
Effect in Diabetes
Inflammatory processes and oxidative stress also contribute to the development of diabetes and – in the case of existing diabetes – to its secondary diseases (complications). A February 2015 Iranian triple-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that milk thistle supplementation improved some antioxidant levels and reduced inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes.
Participants were 40 type 2 diabetics between the ages of 25 and 50 who were well-controlled with medication. The milk thistle group received 140 mg of silymarin three times a day for 45 days, and the placebo group received a corresponding placebo preparation. No one reported any side effects.
In the silymarin group, the levels of the body’s own antioxidants increased significantly compared to the placebo group, namely the values of SOD (superoxide dismutase), GPX (glutathione peroxidase), and the total antioxidant capacity (TAC).
At the same time, the inflammation levels fell by an average of about 27 percent. Malondialdehyde levels went down 12 percent. Malondialdehyde is considered a marker of oxidative stress in diabetes.
A diabetes study with milk thistle was also published in October 2011. This review examined nine randomized, placebo-controlled trials involving a total of 487 patients. Milk thistle was able to improve blood sugar levels in these studies, but cinnamon was not. Milk thistle can therefore be taken very well as an accompaniment to diabetes – preferably repeatedly as a cure for eight weeks.
Effect on the immune system
Since milk thistle also stimulates the immune system and strengthens the body’s own defenses – the higher the dose of milk thistle, the better – the positive effects of the plant are no longer surprising. It increases the values of interferon-gamma, interleukin 4, and interleukin 10 (although this has only been tested in vitro so far).
Interferon-gamma not only stimulates the immune system, but the messenger also fights viruses and has anti-tumor properties. The two interleukins, on the other hand, have an anti-inflammatory effect and ensure that the immune system does not overreact.
Milk thistle in homeopathy
Milk thistle is also used in homeopathy. Carduus marianus is available as a mother tincture and in potencies D1 to D6. Here, too, the area of application is regenerative and detoxifying cell support in liver diseases.
Milk Thistle Tea
As already explained above, the amounts of active ingredients in milk thistle tea are only small. Although tea can be useful for digestive problems (flatulence, feeling of fullness), it is not sufficient to regenerate the liver.
In any case, the milk thistle seeds should be ground very finely or ground in a mortar before pouring hot water over them (1 – 2 teaspoons of the ground seeds (3 – 5 g) in 1 cup of water (150 – 200 ml)), allowing to steep for ten minutes and then pours off. The tea is drunk 3 to 4 times a day, 30 minutes before meals.
Since it does not taste particularly good, it is mixed with e.g. B. with some peppermint or liquorice. The latter contains glycyrrhizic acid as an active ingredient, which is also characterized by liver-protecting properties and therefore harmonizes well with milk thistle.
For other indications (e.g. liver problems, diabetes, cancer) you should also resort to finished preparations in order to actually achieve an effect. Finished preparations contain the silymarin complex in high and mostly standardized dosages.
Finished preparations – The quality
Most milk thistle preparations that are available in conventional shops (pharmacies, drugstores) contain a wealth of unnecessary additives, such as e.g. B. magnesium stearate, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, copovidone (artificial binder), talc, lactose, refined and hydrogenated fats, and questionable dyes (quinoline yellow, yellow-orange S, indigo carmine, etc.). When it comes to capsules, they are rarely vegetable capsules, but gelatine capsules.
While all of these ingredients are important for tablet manufacture and for the tablet to have a nice color, they are completely unnecessary, if not detrimental, for the desired milk thistle effect. Since you are doing something good for your liver with milk thistle and do not want to burden it with questionable tablets or capsules, we recommend that you pay attention to the list of ingredients when buying milk thistle preparations and only purchase preparations that are free of superfluous substances are.
For example, there have long been high-dose and purely plant-based milk thistle extract capsules that contain nothing more than the plant-based capsule material and the milk thistle extract, e.g. B. the milk thistle extract capsules from effective nature, which provide 400 mg silymarin per day (per capsule 200 mg).
Side Effects and Interactions
Milk thistle preparations can cause headaches or gastrointestinal problems (slight laxative effect), but this is rare and more likely at very high doses. Hypersensitivity reactions (allergic reactions such as skin rashes or similar) can occur even more rarely.
Since milk thistle affects the metabolism of the liver and strengthens its performance, it is possible that some medications are broken down more quickly, so taking milk thistle – if you have to take medication – should always be discussed with your doctor, naturopath, or pharmacist.
Since milk thistle – as described above – can have a blood sugar-lowering effect, this should be taken into account if you are taking blood sugar-lowering medication for diabetes, so that the blood sugar does not suddenly drop too low.