Milk thistle has been used in Europe for over 2000 years for the treatment of liver problems (1). It is native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and has been naturalized to Australia and California. Milk thistle has been used for the treatment of liver diseases such as alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver poisoning, and viral hepatitis. It helps regulate blood sugar, fat metabolism and helps with the excretion of certain hormones. It’s been known to help with acne, constipation, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. The liver produces bile and milk thistle helps in the production of bile which metabolizes fats in the small intestines.
Milk thistle can help with atherosclerosis, gallstones, high cholesterol, iron overload, and some forms of cancer. Milk thistle helps the liver convert LDL cholesterol (Bad cholesterol) into HDL cholesterol (Good cholesterol), and milk thistle helps the liver reduce the amount of cholesterol in the bile which is dumped directly into the intestines where it can be reabsorbed2). Reducing the cholesterol in bile will help lower the chances of forming gallstones.
Milk thistle can help with some forms of cancer-related to the hormone estrogen. Laboratory experiments demonstrated silybin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, will fight for estrogen receptor sites and block the estrogen that is in the body from landing on cancer cells. Milk thistle would be a good preventative herb for those at risk for breast cancer and cancers stimulated by estrogen.
Milk thistle in large doses has shown to protect the kidneys from damage during chemotherapy. A study done with mice given milk thistle in very large doses equivalent to 30grams per 110 pounds in adults completely shielded the kidneys from damage during chemotherapy. The two drugs used were doxorubicin and cisplatin; milk thistle actually increased the effectiveness of these two drugs. With liver cancer, milk thistle will protect a special immune system cell called Kupffer cells which destroy bacteria, toxins, and other foreign matter that enters the liver (3). Milk thistle has also shown to help fight prostate cancer.
Milk thistle can help the liver become less insulin resistant which would be a benefit for diabetics. The liver helps remove insulin from the bloodstream with type 2 diabetes and can help with diabetes caused by liver damage from excessive alcohol drinking. When there is excess insulin in the bloodstream weight gain can occur, milk thistle can help fight weight gain by helping the liver remove insulin from the blood.
Milk thistle is best used with phosphatidylcholine when taken together can boost the absorption by 95% that means more of the milk thistle makes it into the bloodstream then without phosphatidylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine is also known as soy lecithin which can be picked up at any health food store. If you are currently a diabetic, you should monitor your blood sugar carefully while you on milk thistle. Women who are using the birth control pill should not take milk thistle because it helps the liver remove hormones from the blood stream and may render the birth control pill ineffective. Anybody who starts taking milk thistle might experience loose bowels because gallbladder activity will increase, but after a few days, this will subside.