Milk Thistle: Research update on liver health, type 2 diabetes, and immunity
Source: Today’s Dietician (April 2020)
Lifestyle Medicine Update (February 2, 2021)
In 2019, American consumers spent over $6 billion on herbal dietary supplements, which was an increase of 8.6% over the previous year. (1) Within this category, Milk thistle is the most commonly used herbal supplement in the United States for liver problems. In fact, sales of milk thistle supplements grew by 6% in 2019 alone. Approximately 890 tons of milk thistle supplements were sold world-wide in 2018, with North America and Europe purchasing the majority. (2) So, what is Milk thistle and why has it become so popular? Milk thistle is a prickly plant that has distinctive purple flowers and white veins. The active ingredients in milk thistle are a group of plant flavonoids collectively known as silymarin. The silymarin extracted from milk thistle is shown to have antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Milk thistle is often promoted for its liver-protecting effects and has been shown in human studies to protect the liver against toxins like amatoxin, which is found in the deadly death cap mushroom.
There was one remarkable report of a California medical doctor, who saved the lives of almost an entire family after he got permission from authorities to use Milk thistle to treat family members who had fallen very ill after they inadvertently ate death cap mushrooms, realizing only afterward that they had swallowed a mushroom that was soon going to cause liver failure and kill them. In a timely manner, Dr. Todd Mitchell M.D. administered a high yield silymarin Milk thistle supplement to the family members, which saved the lives of all six family members, except for the 83-year-old grandmother. (3) Other studies have shown that Milk thistle supplementation can improve liver function in people with other liver diseases, suggesting it could help reduce liver inflammation and liver damage. One study also found that it may slightly extend the life expectancy of people with alcohol-induced liver cirrhosis.
More research is needed to examine all the mechanisms by which Milk thistle works to protect liver cells, but it is thought to reduce damage to the liver caused by free radicals, which are produced when your liver metabolizes toxic substances. This appears to be one important mechanism (4). Milk thistle supplementation has also been shown to improve type 2 diabetes management in human subjects. A study published in Diabetic Research in 2016 reviewed all available studies, involving a total of 270 type 2 diabetic patients. The results showed that Milk thistle supplementation lowered blood sugar (glucose) and hemoglobin A1c levels – a key marker for long-term blood sugar regulation. These effects were attributed to Milk thistle’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (5)
Milk thistle also shows promising effects on improving immune system function. A 2017 review in the journal International Immunopharmacology highlighted the immune modulation effects of milk thistle, which suggests it may be helpful to reduce the risk of infections and as an adjunct in the management of various autoimmune disorders. (6) In animal models, Milk thistle has been shown to inhibit the growth of certain tumors and it enhances immune system function by increasing the proliferation of lymphocytes and interferon-gamma, IL-4 and IL-10 in a dose-dependent fashion. Meaning that the higher the Milk thistle dosage, the greater the immune system response. (7)
I personally, take a Milk thistle supplement each day that contains Milk thistle, standardized to 80% silymarin content, and also includes:
- Reishi mushroom extract
Research shows that these four natural agents work synergistically to help support liver health in a number of ways, as well as enhancing liver detoxification processes, they support immune system function, can improve blood sugar regulation, and they also exhibit anti-cancer properties in many experimental studies.
I have included the references on Milk thistle in the text below.
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.