Milk thistle is a gorgeous purple (and sometimes red) flowering plant native to Southern Europe and Asia. Its unique beauty belies its many health-boosting properties—so you’ll do well to keep it in your arsenal.
Milk thistle’s seed extract is well-researched, so it enjoys popularity among lovers of natural health. Here’s what you should know about the flower’s mighty little seed.
The Liver Loves It
The organ of detoxification, the liver, acts as a filtration system for the body. Every time you eat or drink something, your liver has to deal with it.
Amalia Gardner, LA.c., who practices at the yoga studio Pardon My Heart in Los Angeles, is a big fan of milk thistle for liver health: “In practice, I often utilize this herb (in conjunction with other herbs) for patients needing liver detox support, in order to to encourage optimal liver function.”
To promote liver health, milk thistle is most often taken in supplement form—as a capsule or liquid. The extract contains silymarin (some milk thistle supplements go by this name), which has been shown to aid in liver support by stabilizing membranes, exerting antioxidant activity, and promoting the regeneration of hepatocytes (important functional cells in the liver), among other things, according to Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology.
Not only can milk thistle help protect the liver, it has been shown to actually promote the regeneration of damaged liver cells. (Liver damage can be caused by disease, alcohol abuse, or certain prescribed drugs.) In fact, patients who had a partial liver removal showed increased regeneration of their liver with sylimarin treatment, according to a study in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Milk thistle may also promote a slower progression of irreversible liver damage, says research published in Ailment Pharmalogical. The study accessed over a 1000 patients with liver damage, and found that the extract caused improvements in patients with liver damage.
There is a growing body of research indicating that milk thistle is good for your general health—beyond its liver health-promoting properties.
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It contains high levels of lipophilic antioxidant, which increases immunity and reduces oxidative stress (what happens to you when you’re exposed to free radicals). It may also help to promote a reduction of inflammation (which can affect heart health), according to Phytomedicine.
A small percentage of people are allergic to milk thistle or may experience side effects because of it, so it’s important to speak with your health provider first. Another word of caution: “Milk thistle is not to be consumed while pregnant or nursing and should not be taken while ingesting iron supplements for anemia,” says Garner, as milk thistle may cause a small reduction in the absorption of iron into the body.
Lastly, according to The Lancet Oncology, it may interfere with some medications, especially cancer treatment.
Related: Shop milk thistle products.