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Top 14 Science-Based Health Benefits of Milk Thistle and Silymarin

Milk thistle is a wonderful supplement that is gentle with a low side effect profile.  It’s great for the liver, detoxing, lowering inflammation and it’s a good antioxidant.  It may even help with weight.

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Introduction to Milk Thistle

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Milk thistle is scientifically called Silybum marianum. It is an annual or biennial plant of the Asteraceae family. Originally a native of Southern europe through to Asia, it is now found throughout the world (R).

Milk Thistle is one of the most commonly used non-traditional therapies, particularly in Germany (R). The largest producer of milk thistle is Madaus (Germany). The German commission E has recommended its use for dyspeptic complaints, and liver conditions including toxin-induced liver damage and cirrhosis, also a supportive therapy for chronic inflammatory liver conditions (R).

Milk Thistle (Silymarin) seeds have been described as a “liver elixir” for several millennia (R). 

The Milk Thistle That I Recommend

Below, I give a bunch of different good options to buy Milk Thistle, but some people want to to know which one I recommend.

Milk Thistle Snapshot

  • Longevity8.0/10
  • Inflammation8.5/10
  • Mood8.0/10
  • Cognition7.0/10
  • Energy7.0/10

Pros

  • Great for liver function and detoxification
  • Is gentle and has a diverse array of beneficial functions
  • Good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
  • Helps metabolic function
  • May help cancer
  • Low risk for side effects

Cons

  • There are stronger anti-inflammatories and antioxidants out there
  • The effects are subtle
  • Doesn’t taste good

The Health Benefits of Milk Thistle

1) Milk Thistle Protects Liver

Milk thistle (Silymarin) has been shown to have anti-fibrogenic activity along with its ability to help with liver cell regeneration (R).

A combination of Milk thistle (Silybin) and phosphatidylcholine treatment showed a significant improvement in liver enzymes, insulin resistance, and liver tissue in patients with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) in a complex was found to be effective in lowering abnormally elevated liver biochemical parameters in patients with alcoholic liver disease (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) produced a small increase in glutathione and a decrease in lipid peroxidation in peripheral blood cells in patients with alcoholic liver cirrhosis (R).

Milk thistle use in liver transplant human recipients proved to protect liver health (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) may prove to be a useful drug for liver protection in diseases associated with the liver plus gall bladder and in liver toxicity due to drugs in humans (R).

In animals, Milk thistle (silymarin) reduced liver injury caused by Tylenol (acetaminophen), carbon tetrachloride, radiation, iron overload, phenylhydrazine, alcohol, cold ischaemia and Amanita phalloides. It has also been used to treat alcoholic and toxin-induced liver diseases (R).

Studies have shown that Milk thistle has been used in the treatment of chemotherapy induced liver toxicity (R).

Mechanism:

Studies suggest that Milk thistle (Silymarin) increases liver cell protein synthesis (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) acts as a toxin blockade agent by inhibiting binding of toxins to the liver-cell cell membrane receptors (R).

Milk thistle has a moderate pancreatic lipase (PL) inhibitory activity (R).

2) Milk Thistle is an Antioxidant

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Milk thistle (Silymarin) improved some antioxidant indices, including increased SOD (Superoxide dismutase), GPX (glutathione peroxidase), Total antioxidant capacity and decreased hs-CRP in patients with Type 2 diabetes (R).

Mechanism:

Nrf2 activation is probably the main driving force of antioxidant (AO) action of Milk thistle (R).

Milk thistle also inhibits NF-kB pathway (R).

Milk thistle also activates Heat Shock Proteins (HSP’s), thioredoxins and sirtuins, providing additional protection in stress conditions (R).

Milk thistle directly scavenges free radicals and chelates free iron and copper (R).

Milk thistle prevents free radical formation by inhibiting specific ROS producing enzymes, or improving an integrity of mitochondria in stressful conditions (R).

3) Milk Thistle is an Anti-Inflammatory

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In mice, milk thistle (Silibinin) exerted potent anti-inflammatory activities and reduced inflammation-induced pre term birth (R).

Milk thistle (silibinin) exerted anti-inflammatory effect by inhibiting hydrogen peroxide release and TNF-alpha production in human monocytes obtained from healthy individuals (R).

Anti-Inflammatory Mechanism:

4) Milk Thistle for Infections

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Milk thistle (Silibinin) was well tolerated and showed a substantial antiviral effect against Hepatitis-C virus in non responders (patients who do not respond as expected) (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) use among patients with advanced Hepatitis-C related liver disease was associated with reduced progression from fibrosis to cirrhosis (R).

Milk thistle (silymarin derived compounds) provided cellular protection by suppressing viral infections, immune activation and inflammation and as such may be relevant for both HIV and Hepatitis C infected patients (R).

Milk thistle (Silibrinin) administration even after 48h ingestion of mushroom appeared to be an effective measure to prevent severe liver damage in Amanita phalloides poisoning in humans (R1,R2).

Milk thistle is an antidote of choice in patients with acute liver toxicity from amatoxin poisoning. The overall risk of dying in patients treated with a Milk Thistle supplement is less than 10% in nearly 1500 documented cases in North America (R).

Research in animals/in lab:

Milk thistle (Silybin) and its derivative inhibited Influenza A virus infection and significantly reduced virus replication and associated death in infected mice (R).

Milk thistle (silibinin) exhibited good activity against isolates of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) (R).

Milk thistle (silymarin) inhibited gram-positive bacteria and showed anti-biofilm activity against certain bacterial strains (R).

Milk thistle (silibinin) showed significant activity against E.coli (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) was a promising therapeutic agent in the treatment of Schistosomal liver fibrosis. It caused a partial decrease in worm burden, liver tissue egg load with an increase in the percentage of dead eggs in mice infected with Schistosoma mansoni (R).

Mechanism:

Milk thistle (silybin) inhibited RNA and protein synthesis in gram positive bacteria (R).

Milk thistle extracts have been shown to interact with specific liver transfer proteins blocking cellular amatoxin re-uptake and thus interrupting circulation of the toxin from liver to the bile and thereby into the small intestine (R).

5) Milk Thistle is Neuroprotective

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Lab experiments indicate a protective effect of Milk thistle (silibinin) on infection-induced brain injury in a mouse model (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) significantly reduced memory damage caused by Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) treatment in rats (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) also increased the generation of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the hippocampus of rats (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) extended lifespan and reduced amyloid protein aggregation in a worm model of Alzheimer’s. It works via hormetic mechanisms (R).

Mechanisms:

6) Milk Thistle is Anti-Diabetic

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Human clinical studies have demonstrated that Milk Thistle extract has significant anti-diabetic properties (R).

Long term treatment with Milk Thistle (Silymarin) lowered high insulin and insulin requirements in diabetics.  It also lowered malondialdehyde (a marker of oxidative stress) levels in cirrhotic diabetic patients (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) treatment in Type 2 diabetic patients for four months had a beneficial effect on improving the blood glucose balance (R).

Mechanism: inhibits Pancreatic Lipase (PL) (R).

7) Milk Thistle Protects the Heart

Human clinical studies have demonstrated that Milk thistle extract is cardioprotective (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) protects heart muscle cells against isoproterenol-induced injury in animals (R).

Milk thistle (silymarin) exhibited a protective influence on the heart against toxicity induced by doxorubicin in rats (R).

Mechanism: Milk thistle (silibinin) resumed mitochondrial function and increased the expression of SIRT-1 and Bcl-2 family members (R).

8) Milk Thistle Protects From Chemicals and Toxins

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Milk thistle (silymarin) can be employed as a supportive element in the therapy of Amanita phalloides poisoning (R).

Milk thistle (silybin) may have protective effects against Microcystin toxicity in mice (R).

Milk thistle can provide protection against aflatoxin in chickens (R).

9) Milk Thistle May Help Prevent and Treat Cancer

Cancer

Milk thistle was associated with a trend towards significant reductions in liver toxicity in children with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) (R).

A combination of Milk thistle (Silymarin) and selenium significantly reduced two markers of lipid metabolism known to be associated with prostate cancer progression, LDL and total cholesterol in blood  in men after they removed their prostate (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) based cream may be a promising and effective treatment for the prevention of acute skin lesions caused by radiotherapy (RT) in breast cancer patients (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) helped a 34-year old women with promyelocytic leukemia. During the 4 month treatment the patient had normal liver transaminase levels and there was no further interruption of chemotherapy (R).

Patients with brain metastases receiving radiotherapy with omega-3 fatty acids and Milk thistle (silymarin) had longer survival times and a decreased number of tissue death from radiotherapy (R).

Milk thistle may favorably supplement sunscreen protection and provide additional anti-cancer protection (R).

Several studies have demonstrated that Milk thistle (Silymarin) may play a role alongside conventional cancer therapy (R).

Research in Animals/in lab:

Milk thistle (Silibinin) inhibited established prostate tumor growth, progression, invasion, and spread in a mouse prostate model (R1, R2).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) delayed the development of spontaneous breast tumors and reduced the number of breast tumor masses in certain mouse genetic models (R1R2).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) significantly inhibited the proliferation and promoted cell cycle arrest of human colon cancer cells (R1R2).

Milk thistle extracts (isosilybin B) might possess improved potency in prostate cancer prevention and treatment (R). Extracts played a protective role by destroying human prostate cancer cells (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) inhibited invasion of oral cancer cells (R).

Milk thistle (silibinin) suppressed human bone cancer (osteosarcoma) cells (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) induced autophagy which contributed to its anti-metastatic capacity in kidney cancer (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) induced the destruction of laryngeal cancer cells (R).

Milk thistle is effective in preventing N-butyl-N-(4-hydroxybutyl)nitrosamine (OH-BBN)-induced bladder cancer in mice (R).

More clinical trials are needed to determine if Milk Thistle can help treat cancer.

Mechanism:

Milk Thistle induces growth arrest at G1 and G2 checkpoints (R).

At higher doses Milk thistle (Silymarin) leads to apoptosis through mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK)/c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) pathway (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) decreased prostrate specific antigen (PSA) expression and also decreased telomerase activity in prostrate cancer cells (R).

Other anticancer mechanisms:

  • Controls the expression of Caspase-3 and Poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) (R).
  • Inhibits Epidermal Growth Factor receptor (EGFR) signalling (R).
  • Suppresses Cyclin Dependent kinase (CDK) expression (R).
  • Increases CDK-inhibitors p21(C1P1) and p27 (K1P1) (R).
  • Inhibits Extracellular signal regulated kinases (ERK1/2) (R).
  • Inhibits Transforming growth factor (TGF)-alpha (R).
  • Decreases cyclin B1 and cdc2 (R).
  • Increases p21 expression (R).
  • Activates SIRT1 pathway (R).

10) Milk Thistle Improves Bone Health

Milk thistle (silymarin) supplementation improved bone healing with elevated BMD (bone mineral density), serum levels of ALP (Bone alkaline phosphatase) and osteocalcin in mouse fracture healing model (R).

Milk thistle (silibinin) was a potential therapeutic agent promoting bone-forming osteoblastogenesis and obstruct osteoclastic bone resorption in mice macrophage and bone cells (R).

Oral dosage of Milk thistle extract (silibinin) in the preclinical setting was effective in preventing estrogen deficiency induced bone loss in mice (R).

Mechanism: Stopped tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase, Cathepsin K induction and matrix metalloproteinase-9 activity (R).

11) Milk Thistle is an Effective Milk Secretor

Milk thistle extract (Silymarin) may be considered as a safe and effective herbal product that can be orally taken in order to improve the daily milk production in healthy women after delivery, without affecting milk quality (R1, R2).

12) Milk Thistle Protects Against Radiation-Induced Lung Injury

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Milk thistle (Silibinin) treatment reduced the radiation-induced lung injury in lung tumor bearing mice. It might be useful agent for lung cancer patients as a non-toxic complementary approach to alleviate the side effects by thorax irradiation (R).

Mechanism: Milk Thistle decreased radiation-induced injury by reducing inflammation and fibrosis, which might be related with the improved survival rate (R).

13) Milk Thistle Reduces Iron Absorption

Milk thistle (Silybin) had the potential to reduce iron absorption in patients with hereditary Hemochromatosis (An iron disorder in which the body simply loads too much iron) (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) is effective at reducing iron overload in patients when used in conjunction with desferrioxamine and reducing body iron burden in β-thalassemia (R).

Note: make sure your ferritin levels are above 60, or else don’t take milk thistle with food.  See basic blood tests.

14) Milk Thistle Inhibits Fat Cells

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Milk thistle (silibinin) inhibits fat cell differentiation in cultures by increasing insig-1 and insig-2 at an early phase in fat cell differentiation process (R).

Milk Thistle Synergies

Berberis aristata and Milk thistle can be considered as addition to statins in patients not tolerating high doses of these drugs in dyslipidemic patients (R).

Milk thistle (Silybin) conjugated with Vitamin E and Phospholipids could be used as a complementary approach for the treatment of patients with chronic liver damage (R).

Milk thistle increases antioxidant defense in combination with Bacopa monnieri, AshwagandhaN-acetyl cysteine, Curcumin (turmeric extract), green tea extract, gotu-kola powder, Gingko biloba leaf extract, Aloe vera powder (R).

Coadministration of silymarin with darunavir-ritonavir seems to be safe in HIV-infected patients (R).

Milk thistle (Silibinin) exerted synergistic effects when administered with oxacillin or ampicillin and showed enhanced antibacterial activity against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections (R).

Milk thistle had an enhanced antibacterial activity against Pseudomonas Aeruginosa in combination with N,N’-dicyclohexylcarbodiimide (DCCD) (R).

Milk thistle (Silymarin) administration in addition to Praziquantel (PZQ) showed complete eradication of eggs and a reduction in liver tissue egg load in mice infected with Schistosoma mansoni (R).

Dosage and Adverse Effects

Oral doses of Milk thistle (Silymarin) of up to 2.1 g per day were safe and well tolerated (R).

In an oral form standardized to contain 70-80 % Silymarin, Milk thistle appears to be safe for up to 41 months of use (R).

Milk thistle is considered a very safe herbal supplement.

Adverse effects associated with oral ingestion of milk thistle include:

  • Gastrointestinal problems but are rare (e.g; nausea, diarrhea, dyspepsia, flatulence, abdominal bloating, abdominal fullness or pain, anorexia and changes in bowel habits) (R).
  • Headache (R).
  • Skin reactions (pruritus, rash, urticaria, and eczema) (R).
  • Neuropsychological events (e.g asthenia, malaise and insomnia) (R).
  • Arthralgia (pain in joint) (R).
  • Rhinoconjunctivitis (nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing etc) (R).
  • Impotence (R).
  • Anaphylaxis (serious life threatening allergic reaction) (R).

Buy Milk Thistle

When choosing supplements to recommend to people, I will weight various factors, such as:

  • Reliability of the company
  • If it has excipients
  • If I had a good experience with it
  • The kinds of additives that it has (rice flour and dairy are a no-go because of lectins and allergens…I mildly prefer to not take supplements with magnesium stearate and silicon dioxide, but I don’t think they’re harmful, so it depends on the price differential…)
  • If it’s standardized (not always, since sometimes full spectrum is better)
  • The concentration of active ingredients
  • The dosage
  • The price (cheaper is better)
  • Ratings
  • If it’s shipped via prime

I usually try to include a few different options because sometimes a single herb can have different kinds of extracts, different dosages and people will prefer different supplements for numerous reasons.  Sometimes, I like to include formulations.  I will always include a general

If you don’t want to deal with the complexity, just go for the supplement that I recommend above.

Preferred:

Also good:

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