Herbs have been used for medicinal purposes since the dawn of time.
No, I don’t have a reference link for the first man and woman pertaining to their use of specific herbs for medicinal purposes.
But, I also don’t have the listed address for their preferred Walgreens either.
And, considering the fact that you’re alive, and I’m alive…well, math dictates that they figured it out.
For thousands and thousands of years, our ancestors across the globe have been using the products of nature to treat everything from headaches to rashes, digestion issues, liver problems, and more.
Truly, even modern medicine wouldn’t be where it is today without all that we’ve learned and derived from nature’s medicinal gifts.
One such gift: milk thistle.
Used in supplements, extracts, and tea form, milk thistle’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties boast some powerful aids to health promotion and disease prevention!
Hmmm, maybe sometime soon we’ll see an ad showing folks with a milk thistle tea mustache that reads: “got milk thistle?” (If so, can I pull a Ross Geller, and go ahead and claim this one?)
Until then, let’s get on to those benefits…
What Is Milk Thistle?
First, before we discuss milk thistle’s many boosts to your health, let’s take a look at exactly what this herb is.
Originally found in Mediterranean countries, milk thistle is also known as the Mary thistle or the holy thistle. It’s leaves are white in color and produce a white milky sap.
Its flowers are prickly to the touch, possibly giving the plant its thistle name. And, those flowers produce seeds, up to 200 seeds to be exact.
Within those seeds is an antioxidant compound known as silymarin, the active ingredient that is thought to be responsible for milk thistle’s many health benefits.
1- Liver Health
Possibly the most notable, and the most common, health benefit associated with milk thistle centers around its benefit to the liver.
Its most common use for centuries has been in treating liver (and gallbladder) conditions.
Silymarin, the antioxidant component we mentioned a moment ago, helps to fight free radical damage in the body. In the liver, it works as a detoxifier, rebuilds damaged cells, and reduces overall damage.
And, as your liver is in the business of metabolizing toxic substances, these detoxifying and rebuilding effects of milk thistle prove especially beneficial.
In animal studies, mice with diet-induced liver damage saw improvements to their liver health with milk thistle. And, while continued studies need to be conducted to affirm this, researchers fully believe this will be the case in humans as well.
But, until those studies are completed, for now we do know…
- Studies have shown milk thistle to reduce liver inflammation and damage.
- In those with liver disease, milk thistle taken as a supplement has been proven to improve liver function.
- Milk thistle has been successfully used to treat other liver conditions like jaundice, acute and chronic hepatitis, and alcoholic and toxin-induced liver diseases.
2- Weight Loss
While milk thistle’s notoriety for liver health tops the charts, the herb’s benefits in weight loss follow close behind.
As with its benefits to the liver, it is the antioxidant compound, silymarin, that is thought to also be responsible for the plant’s aids in weight loss efforts.
This antioxidant helps to detoxify your digestive tract, boosting your weight loss efforts.
But, silymarin is also thought to be an effective means of boosting metabolism, which goes a long way in facilitating weight loss as well.
In animal studies, mice that were fed a diet that should have caused weight gain actually lost weight due to an intake of silymarin.
And in another promising study, while the results are not yet conclusive, milk thistle also caused inhibited growth in fat cells in lab cultures.
3- Lowers Cholesterol
One study has proven milk thistle to lower cholesterol.
While the effects of the herb on cholesterol levels weren’t the main reason for the study, when participants were given milk thistle for diabetes management, those taking the placebo found no effect on cholesterol levels, while those taking the milk thistle all experienced decreases in cholesterol levels.
Milk thistle also cleans the blood and prevents oxidative stress within the arteries.
4- Boosts Breastmilk Production
Milk thistle has proven to be beneficial for nursing mothers as it increased milk production by more than 64% over those mothers taking a placebo in a randomized controlled study.
It is thought that the silymarin in the milk thistle was responsible for boosting prolactin, which is a hormone involved in breast milk production.
5- Supports Immune System
Milk thistle extract has been shown to boost immune responses as well.
Strengthening immune responses can help you to fight off invading pathogens, thereby preventing illness.
Human studies have shown these effects on the immune system; however, since these results were found some time ago, researchers have begun new studies.
And, the newer animal research backs up what was previously discovered: when consumed, milk thistle extract had a positive effect on the immune system, showing improved immunity.
6- Improves Brain Function
Specifically related to age-related cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases), milk thistle has been used in natural medicine for thousands of years to treat these neurological conditions.
As milk thistle (rather the silymarin found in the herb’s seeds) has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, it is thought that these components combat oxidative stress or damage to cells in the brain, thereby preventing mental decline with age.
Studies in animals support this thought as administering milk thistle to subjects, in a 2015 study, increased resistance to oxidative stress.
7- Boosts Bone Health
Milk thistle has been found to prevent bone loss in relation to dips in estrogen in postmenopausal women.
It has also been found to stimulate bone remineralization, a concern for many with age.
As osteoporosis is characterized by bone loss, milk thistle’s ability to aid in healthy bone growth makes it a promising avenue for treatment.
8- May Make Cancer Treatments More Effective
From reducing chemotherapy side effects to even slowing the spread and growth of tumors, milk thistle is proving promising in regards to cancer treatments.
Silymarin is thought to have actual anti-cancer effects according to some studies.
As of now, research suggesting that silymarin makes chemotherapy more effective is limited to test tube findings.
But, in 2016, a study showed milk thistle extract to stop the growth of cancer cells in colorectal cancer (other studies indicate the same for prostate and bladder cancers).
9- Lowers Blood Sugar Levels
A discovery regarding the effects of milk thistle on blood sugar levels found that the herb actually mimics some diabetic medications, reducing blood sugar and improving insulin resistance.
Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, milk thistle may also be beneficial in preventing kidney damage in diabetics, a common complication for sufferers.
10- Eases Digestion
We briefly mentioned milk thistle’s benefit to the digestive system in regards to weight loss, but the herb has been notably used to treat symptoms specific to digestion as well.
German herbal medicine regulators specifically list milk thistle as a possible treatment for sour stomach.
And, this coincides with its uses throughout history, as milk thistle has classically been known to be used as treatment for indigestion.
As this herb supports the health of your liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts, this aid in proper bile flow and detoxification in turn boosts digestion and promotes healthy elimination.
Milk thistle’s most noted benefits surround liver health, most likely due to its detoxifying, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects.
This also lends to its aid in healthy weight loss as toxic buildup can stall weight loss efforts.
While milk thistle is generally considered safe, it is important to note, like with anything else, allergic reactions are possible.
And, if you are currently on medications or undergoing treatment for any of the above listed conditions, talking with your physician before adding anything to those medications or treatments is wise.
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