This natural detoxer is renowned for its liver-boosting properties. So how does it work, and could milk thistle work for you too?
Milk thistle, or silybum marianum, has been used as a herbal healer since ancient Greek times. In the middle ages, the leaves were used in salads, but these days the seeds are most commonly used in supplements.
The seeds are rich in silymarin – a potent compound of antioxidant flavonoids that fights free radical damage and has an anti-inflammatory effect.
If you've overindulged, milk thistle may help – it’s famous for being a natural detoxifier and being used to tackle indigestion. It’s particularly believed to help support the liver, the body’s main organ for filtering out toxins, including alcohol.
Evidence suggests that milk thistle helps protect the liver, and may even regenerate new liver cells. In a review examining its effect on alcoholic liver disease, four studies found improvements in markers of healthy liver function including levels of aminotransferases, enzymes that are released into the blood when the liver is damaged.
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As the liver helps balance out hormones, such as oestrogen, taking milk thistle could also support our hormonal health.
Taking milk thistle may help reduce flare-ups in the body. In a 2015 American study, the herb was shown to suppress inflammation in cells and T-cells (a type of white blood cell). Separate research in the journal PLOSOne in 2017 found that silymarin triggered anti-inflammatory activity in white blood cells.
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Research suggests using milk thistle alongside conventional treatment may help those with diabetes, lowering blood sugar and guarding against insulin resistance.
A 2016 review in the Journal of Diabetes Research, found giving patients silymarin reduced fasting blood glucose levels. It’s also been shown to reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol in those with diabetes. Talk to your GP before trying milk thistle if you have diabetes.
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It is usually taken as tablets or capsules, but can also be taken as a powder, tincture or tea. Milk thistle can interact with certain drugs, so check with your GP or a medical herbalist before taking. It also has oestrogen-mimicking properties, so check if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a history of certain cancers.