Milk thistle, also known as Mary thistle or holy thistle, is a plant found growing naturally in the Mediterranean areas of Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. A mature plant can grow over a few feet tall with large protruding leaves toward the top, capped by a purple bloom. It is known in many gardens as the plant to keep your distance from because the leaves and tall stem both have lots of tiny sharp thorns. Not just defensive in nature physically, milk thistle is most often used as an extract to improve the function of the liver and gallbladder and as a defense against toxins.
With the liver being the second largest organ in your body, its function keeps the rest of the organs on task by producing bile that helps breakdown fat. When pollutants enters the bloodstream, the liver secretes the yellowish-green fluid which detoxifies toxins the body absorbs from cigarettes, alcohol, and other inhalants like carbon monoxide from the air.
Milk thistle strengthens the liver, protects liver cells from incoming toxins and allows it to process and release toxins that are already there. It also acts as an anti-depressant, helping to move stagnant liver energy. Milk thistle also soothes and moistens mucous membranes, offering remedy for kidney and bladder irritation as well as inflammation of the skin. This lubricating effect makes milk thistle a mild natural laxative as well.
Milk thistle has been proved in clinical trials to be good at helping liver cirrhosis and inflammation, and also claims to have helped with reducing insulin resistance for type 2 diabetes, inhibiting the growth of cancer cells in the breast, cervix, and prostate, and supposedly has magic cholesterol-lowering qualities.
The main ingredient in milk thistle is extracted from the seeds of the plant and known to be the most active part of the herb. Called silymarin, the active ingredient is infused into teas, injected into capsules, and diluted into an extract. Silymarin is an antioxidant (like blueberries or pomegranates) that helps protect the liver against free radical damage. The flavonoids (a type of organic plant compound) in the milk thistle plant are directly beneficial to the liver because of their antioxidant behavior.
According to a study published in the May 8, 2008 edition of Cancer Letter, silymarin modulates imbalance between cell survival and apoptosis. Apoptosis is the programmed death of cells. When cells do not die as programmed there is risk of tumor formation. Silymarin carries out its role by interfering with the expression of cell cycle regulators and proteins involved in apoptosis. In addition, silymarin shows anti-inflammatory as well as anti-metastatic activity. Further, the protective effects of silymarin and its major active constituent, silibinin, studied in various tissues, suggest a clinical application in cancer patients as an adjunct to established therapies, to prevent or reduce chemotherapy as well radiotherapy induced toxicity.
Milk thistle can be an allergen to a certain group of people who are also allergic to its plant relatives such as ragweed, daisy, marigold, and chrysanthemum, and side effects have been generally mild during trials with occasional cases of diarrhea, bloating, and an upset stomach. As with any natural supplement, it may not be helpful to everyone and you should always consult your doctor or allergist upon taking any new medicine combinations.
How milk thistle works
Milk thistle, provides protection to liver cells by stabilizing and guarding the cell membranes. It alters the structure of the outer cell membrane so as to prevent the penetration of liver toxins into the interior cell. By reducing the rate at which the liver absorbs harmful substances, toxins are excreted through the kidneys before they are able to damage the liver. A dramatic example of this is the ability of milk thistle to block poisons from the deathcap mushroom, a notorious liver toxin.
In a study, physicians rated the results after a group of 49 patients with deathcap mushroom poisoning were given injections of silibinin (20 mg/kg daily). All of the treated patients survived, even though they were treated from 24 to 36 hours after their poisoning, when liver and kidney damage had already occurred. The usual death rate from deathcap poisoning is 30 to 40 percent of patients. In a similar manner, Milk thistle detoxifies chemicals that enter our bodies from environmental sources, alcohol consumption, heavy metals, medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, and drugs.
Silymarin exerts its powerful antioxidant properties by combining and neutralizing harmful free radicals resulting from metabolic processes and from the process of detoxification. Silymarin also helps increase levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD), two antioxidants made naturally in the body. Silymarin may increase the content of glutathione in the liver and intestines by as much as 50 percent. It also increases the activity of SOD in red and white blood cells. In the stomach and intestines, silymarin has a role in the treatment of inflammatory conditions such as colitis and ulcers.
Milk thistle helps repair damaged cells and generate new ones when needed. It accomplishes this by stimulating vital protein synthesis through the enzyme RNA polymerase I. Silibinin may be the agent of this process, functioning by imitating a steroid hormone. In a study, silybin increased protein synthesis by up to 25 to 30 percent compared to controls. This is important since protein is a basic building block of cell walls, cell structures, and the creation of enzymes vital to body processes. This ability of Milk thistle to promote regeneration is why it is a chosen treatment for chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fatty liver.
Milk thistle for kidney disease, diabetes, and skin health
In the kidneys, silymarin concentrates in the cells to aid in repair and regeneration by increasing protein and nucleic acid synthesis by as much as 25 to 30 percent. It has been tested in animals for its ability to protect kidneys from damage due to drugs. Results of this research were promising for people taking chemotherapy.
The ability of milk thistle to improve liver function and regulate the utilization of insulin leads to improved control for diabetes. A study reported in the August, 2002 Diabetes, Nutrition and Metabolism Journal noted that in patients with diabetes and associated chronic liver disease, plasma levels of glucose, insulin and triglycerides are high, lipid peroxidation is increased, and natural antioxidant reserves are low. Researchers hypothesized that better liver function could result in a better glucose and lipid metabolism.
A randomly selected group of 60 patients with diabetes caused by liver cirrhosis who were being treated with insulin were assigned to receive silymarin 600 mg/day or no treatment with silymarin for a period of 6 months. All the patients were receiving insulin therapy and had elevated endogenous insulin levels indicative of insulin resistance. Other criteria for inclusion in the study were age between 45 and 70, insulin therapy stable for at least 2 years, and liver cirrhosis determined by biopsy less than 4 years previously. Metabolic control, serum lipid levels and liver function was assessed throughout their treatment period.
Treatment with silymarin produced benefits in terms of control of diabetes, including significant reduction in daily and fasting blood glucose confirmed by urine glucose measurement, significant improvement in glycosylated hemoglobin values, and a significant drop in insulin requirement and fasting insulinemia. The status of the patients not treated with silymarin declined during the trial. The outcome in the silymarin recipients was significantly superior compared to the control group.
In the treated patients, the measured values of the end product of lipid peroxidation decreased significantly, from 2.2 umol/dl at baseline to 1.6 umo/dl 6 months later. In the control group, a slight increase in lipid peroxidation was observed over the 6 month period.
Researchers concluded that the clinical benefits of silymarin observed in the study probably involve restoration of the plasma membrane of the liver cells and an increase in insulin receptor sensitivity as a result of reduction in lipid peroxidation of liver cell membranes. Researchers noted the need to administer silymarin for longer periods of time in order to identify the end point of the biochemical amelioration caused by the silymarin treatment. All of the study participants chose to continue with silymarin following the 6 month study.
Along with moistening and soothing mucus membranes, Milk Thistle is effective at softening and moisturizing the skin, and it produces a noticeable glow and radiance to skin quality. Skin problems are quite responsive, particularly acne and eczema. Milk Thistle also aids in the healing of redness and inflammation of the skin.