Home -Herbal Extracts Why Milk Thistle Is The Ultimate Liver Protector Plus Other Surprising Potential Health Benefits
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Why Milk Thistle Is The Ultimate Liver Protector Plus Other Surprising Potential Health Benefits

Have you ever heard about the divine origin of milk thistle? Legend has it that when Virgin Mary escaped Egypt, she searched for a safe spot to nurse baby Jesus. They finally found refuge in a shelter made of milk thistle’s spiky leaves. Her milk touched a leaf, leaving a lasting white imprint for us to marvel at. 

It may sound surprising, but it’s a traditional herbal remedy for gallbladder and liver problems. It comes with other positive health benefits based on science. 

  • Gain knowledge about its health benefits
  • Get to know how it works on your body
  • Be aware of its potential side effects and risks
  • Learn about the proper dosage and frequency of use
  • Understand its safety and where you can find it

What Are The Potential Health Benefits of Milk Thistle?

Milk Thistle from the plant Silybum marianum is a native of Europe. It has been called many names, like blessed milk thistle and holy thistle. Early colonists brought it to North America, now found throughout the US. This plant with bright purple flowers also grows in South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia.

Greek botanist and physician, Dioscordides was the first to describe its healing action centuries ago. It has been used for gallbladder, kidney, liver, and stomach disorders as a folk medicine. In 1597, John Gerard said it was the best remedy for sadness-related ailments. 

Silymarin is extracted from the milk thistle seeds. It’s the active ingredient associated with health benefits. Moreover, experts identify silybin or silibinin as the main element of Siylmarin. They claim that it has a more potent therapeutic effect than other flavonolignans.

1. Protect Your Liver

A liver problem that persists for more than six months is considered chronic. A Russian expert panel classified these problems based on their causes:

  • Cirrhosis is a fibrotic formation or scarring of the liver from long-term damage.
  • Alcohol liver disease (ALD) is liver damage due to excessive alcohol intake.
  • Non-fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is not linked to alcohol intake.  
  • Metabolic-associated fatty liver disease (MAFLD) is caused by problems in metabolism.
  • Drug-induced liver injury (DILI) is caused by certain medicines.

Silymarin protects cells and prevents inflammation and liver scarring. These actions contribute to liver health based on studies. 

Milk Thistle for Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)

Researchers reviewed eight trials on the effect of silymarin in people with NAFLD. They looked into changes in transaminase or liver enzymes. These enzymes play a role in filtering toxins from the body. 

The review reveals that silymarin seemed to reduce liver enzyme levels more than a placebo. But further studies need to confirm these results.

Specific enzymes show your liver status. For example, when your liver cells are damaged, your body releases alanine transaminase (ALT) into your bloodstream. Another is aspartate aminotransferase (AST), found in your heart, liver, and muscles. Similarly, it leaks into your bloodstream when your liver is injured. 

Researchers examined eight studies that tested silymarin on people with NAFLD. They found that silymarin helped lower AST and ALT liver enzymes more than a placebo. It suggests that silymarin might be a natural option for NAFLD. 

Cirrhosis and Alcohol Liver Problem

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reviewed studies on milk thistle and alcohol liver problems. They noted that six studies significantly improved one liver function measurement.

Another two different studies show significant improvement in survival. So the AHRQ report on studies is promising and offers possible benefits. But most studies need more clarity with more supporting details.

A recent study suggests that silymarin can be used as a supportive therapy. In addition, it may improve the liver process in alcohol-related liver damage. 

Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol and its by-product, acetaldehyde. These substances cause damage to your liver cells. A 2022 study reveals silibinin positively affects the alcohol-damaged liver in three ways. 

First, silibinin reduces enzymes linked to liver damage. Second, it prevents cell death. And third, it helps maintain mitochondria function and shape. Mitochondria refer to the “powerhouse” of cells. Thus, silibinin can protect your liver cells from alcohol damage. It prevents mitochondrial changes that can lead to cell death.

Liver Cancer

Researchers conducted a review of studies from 1980 to 2016. It shows Silybin has the potential to fight cancer. It targets specific molecules and can prevent cancer by reducing inflammation. 

As a result, it stops harmful substances from damaging DNA cells. However, more clinical and large trials on people are needed to support animal studies. 

According to another review, your body may not easily absorb silibinin. It’s because it has low solubility, which limits its efficacy. So to improve its solubility, researchers combined it with phosphatidylcholine.

The study reveals that this combination enhanced the efficacy of milk thistle. Additionally, silibinin can block specific cell signaling pathways contributing to liver problems and cancer.

2. Improve Blood Sugar Levels

Glucose or sugar comes from carbs in your food and drinks. Your blood carries sugar to all parts of your body to be used for energy. But sugar needs insulin hormone to enter your cells. A problem arises when your pancreas isn’t making enough insulin. Sometimes your body isn’t using insulin properly. 

As a result, the sugar can’t enter your cells, causing high blood sugar. Clinicians also call this type-2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). It’s a condition when you have higher than normal blood sugar levels.

A 2021 review shows that silymarin can improve how the body uses insulin. Even though the clinical trials have different methods, the results were similar. The review suggests that silymarin is a safe, effective, and affordable diabetes therapy. Moreover, it can be a stand-alone option or an add-on with standard diabetes drugs.

At the same time, other researchers support silymarin for T2DM. They reviewed seven studies with 350 people from scientific databases until November 2020. 

The findings reveal that silymarin supplements decrease fasting blood sugar (FBS). It also lowers hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c) and low-density lipoprotein or “bad” fats. HbA1c is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels. Although, silymarin did not affect the total amount of cholesterol and fat in the blood.

The review claims that more proof is needed to make a solid conclusion. But, silymarin may positively impact FBS and HbA1c.

3. Milk Thistle for Cancer Therapy

Cancer is a severe and debilitating chronic disease. However, some people survive it through medicines, supportive therapy, and herbal supplements. Studies indicate that silymarin may suppress the spread of tumor cells in various organs

  • Bladder
  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Lung
  • Ovary
  • Prostate

A 2022 review of studies from 2010 to 2021 shows positive outcomes. Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. As a result, it has anti-cancer effects targeting different types of cancer. It includes cancer of the liver, pancreas, prostate, and skin. 

Moreover, milk thistle balances enzymes and induces cell death. Its antioxidant action reduces toxic effects on healthy cells. Thus, it helps control cancer in its different stages. 

The review suggests it can be a supplement in cancer therapy. At the same time, it works well with other herbs for a synergistic effect. 

Similarly, milk thistle could help reduce liver damage caused by chemo and radiotherapy. It could also minimize skin and inner lining damage. 

4. May Help People with Brain Disorders

Difficulty recalling, communicating, and moving are some signs of brain disorders.  The causes need to be better understood. But scientists think it’s an abnormal buildup of protein or plaques in the brain.

As a result, there is a gradual loss of function and eventual death of brain cells. It includes Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Since there is no remedy, healthcare providers recommend medicines and therapies to help manage the symptoms.

According to a study, silymarin can protect the brain against AD and PD. It prevents oxidative stress and protein buildup. Moreover, it stops brain inflammation and cell death linked to AD and PD. 

In a study on mice, researchers found that silibinin-fed mice showed improved memory. In addition, it protected their brain cells from damage. Moreover, it helped enhance mitochondrial health by reducing harmful oxidative stress. Thus, it may be a promising therapy for the thinking difficulties associated with PD.

Another study on rats aimed to see if silibinin can help ease symptoms of PD. The rats first took a substance to induce PD for 21 days. Then, they took silibinin for 15 days and underwent tests for movement. Samples of their brain cells were also measured for inflammation.

The results show that silibinin helped improve the rat’s movement. Moreover, inflammation and brain cell death improved. These findings suggest that milk thistle may be a potential therapy for PD. However, more research is needed to know its safety and efficacy on people.

5. Could Promote Bone Health for Menopausal Women

Osteoporosis happens when your bones lose more minerals than your body can create them. This bone loss can lead to fracture risks since the bones easily break.

Researchers looked at whether milk thistle extract could help protect bones. Silibinin has been thought to help bone-forming cells called osteoblasts. Moreover, it has been shown to reduce osteoclasts or the breaking down of bone.

The researchers gave silibinin to mice with ovaries removed to mimic postmenopausal bone loss. Results reveal that silibinin-fed mice had better bone density. They also had lower levels of a substance that can stimulate osteoclast activity. 

Thus, silibinin helped prevent and reduce bone loss. This research suggests that taking milk thistle supplements could be a helpful way to protect the bones of menopausal women.

Silymarin has antioxidant properties that can help promote bone formation. A review reveals that silymarin can modulate multiple genes to build bones. At the same time, it can prevent bone loss. Based on the review of studies on mice, silymarin improved bone healing. It also made bone density and bone-building compounds better. 

The review suggests that silymarin can be a safe and effective bone therapy for postmenopausal women. Additionally, it has no significant side effects, unlike other hormone replacement therapies.

6. Milk Thistle Might Fight Viruses

Have you been down with a flu virus? Scientists continue to investigate new therapies to fight against viruses that are causing outbreaks. Vaccines and drugs are standard ways of preventing and combating viruses. 

But there can be other ways to protect from getting infected. For example, Silymarin stops different viruses in lab and animal studies. 

Hepatitis and Human Immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) 

Based on a study, silibinin can stop the entry of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) into cells. It does this by slowing down how cells take in and move transferrin. It’s a substance that HCV uses to enter cells. 

This study indicates that silibinin could work against HCV and other viruses. Similarly, silymarin can also prevent the entry of the Hepatitis B virus into liver cells.

Concerning hepatitis viruses,  a study shows silibinin also affects HIV-1. It blocked HIV-1 replication and the growth of T-cells in lab-grown cells. Moreover, silibinin did not cause damage to healthy cells. Thus, silibinin might be helpful in HIV-1 therapy. 


Researchers used computer simulations to see the effect of silibinin on another SARS-CoV-2. Their study shows that silibinin can prevent the entry of the SARS-CoV-r virus in cells. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory action interacts with the main target proteins of the virus. Thus, silibinin is a strong contender for managing COVID-19.

Another virus is the common flu virus or influenza. Researchers found that silymarin has a 98% success rate against the flu virus. It had no harmful effects at 100 μg/ml. The researchers noted that silymarin could stop the flu virus from making more copies of itself. It does this by blocking the creation of viral RNA. So, silymarin could be a promising option against influenza. 

Dengue and Chikungunya

Milk thistle also combats mosquito-borne viruses. A study shows it can lower the infectivity mechanism of the dengue virus. Silymarin interacts with the viral surface proteins. It prevents the virus from attaching and entering cells. More research is needed to understand the mechanism.

Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) also reacts to silymarin based on a computer simulation. A study found that silymarin interacts with two CHIKV proteins and prevents CHIKV replication. These findings suggest silymarin could be an effective therapy for CHIKV infection.


Finally, milk thistle has antiviral activity against the herpes virus. It showed some weak antiviral effects. Yet, it was more effective in killing the herpes simplex virus type-2. Further studies need to explore how it works against herpes. 

7. May Protect Your Skin

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage your skin. UVA has a longer wavelength than UVB. Moreover, UVA penetrates your skin deeper, which can cause skin aging, wrinkles, and cancer. In contrast, UVB affects the outer layer of your skin, which causes sunburn.

Researchers aimed to see if silymarin can protect against UVB rays. Additionally, they wanted to know if it could slow down skin aging.

Silymarin has flavonolignanssilybin, iso silybin, silydianin, silychristin, and 2,3-dehydrosilybin (DHSB). A study shows that DHSB has the highest ability to scavage free radicals. It also had the highest UVA protection factor. 

This study suggests that silymarin may protect the skin from the sun’s harmful effects. In addition, it includes slowing down skin aging.

Similarly, another study found that silymarin helps protect skin from UVA rays. They tested this on sample human skin cells using UVA light. They found out that other than DHSB, silychristin had significant effects. 

It means that silymarin could be a potent substance against UVA light. However, more studies are needed to test its safety on people to confirm the results on human skin.

Other Potential Benefits

Breast Milk Production

Can milk thistle improve milk production? Studies have conflicting results when it comes to the effects of it on breastfeeding women. One of the more compelling findings is a study on mothers of preterm babies. The study examined whether a milk thistle could help increase milk production.

The mothers received silymarin-phosphatidylserine with a drug or a placebo. They took it daily from day 3 to 28 after delivery. At the same time, they pumped their breast milk every 2 to 3 hours. The amount of breast milk was measured on days 7, 14, and 28. 

The results show that mothers who took the drug with silymarin produced more milk than the placebo group. Moreover, the mothers who took it for 3 to 6 months were exclusively breastfeeding. 

They also had more than 50% breastmilk than those who took a placebo. Thus, silymarin with a drug may help increase mothers’ milk with preterm babies.

Milk Thistle for Heart Health

A study claims silymarin has antioxidant effects. It can reduce oxidative stress associated with heart disease. As a result, silymarin offers protection against heart problems.

There are specific biomarkers following different pathways which are relevant to heart health. For example, it may reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure levels. Some studies show slight improvements in these areas. 

Additionally, scientists explain that silymarin decreases pro-inflammatory biomarkers. At the same time, it increases antioxidant biomarkers. But there are limitations to the studies that come up with inconsistent results. Bigger and properly designed studies are needed with specific groups of people with standard doses. 

How Does Milk Thistle Work?

According to a 2022 review of studies, milk thistle exhibits many modes of action. Scientists have found that silymarin is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pro-apoptotic 

It can also affect different parts of cells, like receptors, enzymes, and genes. As a result, it could benefit the liver, brain, and heart. Moreover, it may fight diseases like cancer, viruses, and diabetes. Each mode describes how silymarin works in the body to produce a potentially beneficial effect. 

  • Antioxidant – There are many ways silymarin acts as an antioxidant. For example, it prevents glutathione (GSH), a vital antioxidant, from being depleted. It can also scavenge or neutralize free radicals in the gut that can cause inflammation leading to disease. At the same time, silymarin can protect DNA from damage.
  • Anti-inflammatory – It decreases the production of inflammatory substances TNF-alpha and IL-1beta cells. At the same time, it prevents the activity of NF-kappaB in liver cells, reducing inflammation. Moreover, it helps regulate or reduce inflammatory compounds like prostaglandins and leukotrienes. 
  • Anti-scarring – Sylibin can work as an antifibrotic agent. It can reduce the transformation of specific liver cells into myofibroblasts. These tissue-repair cells produce collagen fibers that can lead to liver injury. Silybin achieves this by decreasing the platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) and TGF-B, which play a role in liver fibrosis.
  • Blood Sugar Regulator – People with diabetes have high blood sugar levels and insulin problems. Sylibin can reduce blood sugar levels and boost insulin secretion. Due to its antioxidant action, it can also work for diabetic complications. Examples are diabetic neuropathy and nephropathy.
  • Milk Thistle as Anti-Cancer – Silymarin’s anti-cancer effect is attributed to its antioxidant and inflammatory action. It prevents cell growth and stops the damaging effects of chemicals that can cause tumors. At the same time, it can control the production of TNF alpha, which promotes tumor growth. 
  • Brain Protector – Silymarin can increase specific enzyme activity and reduce inflammation in the brain. As a result, it can protect against brain cell death due to oxidative stress. Moreover, it may prevent glutamate release, which can cause damage to brain cells.
  • Heart Protector – Silymarin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties benefit your heart. It reduces oxidative stress by increasing enzyme activity and GSH in your heart. Moreover, it protects the heart by preventing heart muscle cell death. At the same time, it lowers systolic blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Virus Fighter – It inhibits many viruses by targeting different stages of their life cycle. It also reduces replication and prevents cytokine production, which leads to inflammation. Cytokines are proteins that play a role in your immune system. 
  • Skin Protector – Harmful rays from the sun can cause skin damage. Silymarin can repair DNA damage due to ultraviolet-B rays. Moreover, its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties also protect the skin from UBV-induced oxidative stress. So, it can give extra protection for people out in the sun.

Where Can You Find Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle comes in different forms, depending on your specific need. It can be taken by mouth, infused in your veins, or applied to the skin.

  • Capsules
  • Tablets
  • Liquids or tinctures
  • Tea
  • Intravenous solutions
  • Creams
  • Gels

Milk thistle usually is taken by mouth for various health conditions. But some herbal extract supplements are not easily absorbed by the body. For example, silybin synergizes with phosphatidylcholine lipids for easy absorption. So, check the manufacturer’s label for its content.

People get extra benefits from choosing silymarin supplements that have no artificial ingredients. It should also be free from GMOs, gluten, and soy. These ingredients might cause allergies and sensitivities or increase the risk of stomach discomfort.

How Much Can You Take and How Often?

Some people take silymarin, not exceeding a dose of 140 mg, three times daily. Experts suggest 80% silymarin 150-175 mg capsule thrice daily. There are doses for specific health conditions based on studies:

  • Cancer: 160 mg – 600 mg daily
  • Diabetes: 210 mg – 600 mg for up to 6 months 
  • Liver problems (antifibrotic): 140 mg three times for mild cases 2-3 months, severe cases 12 months
  • NAFLD: 140 mg daily for 8- 12 weeks

For best results, check the manufacturer’s label for the correct dose. Regarding timing, some people take the supplement with meals to improve absorption. Moreover, it lessens the risk of stomach upset. 

Some manufacturers recommend dividing the dose throughout the day. As with any supplement, talk to your healthcare provider to determine the best amount and frequency of use.

What are the Side Effects?

Side effects are rare. Although it might cause stomach upset like nausea and vomiting. Dizziness, headache, and itching may also occur. 

Milk thistle is generally safe and well-tolerated at the proper doses. A review of the clinical study shows that side effects and toxicity are minimal. A dose should be at most 700 mg three times daily for 24 weeks. Moreover, 70%- 80% silymarin at 420 mg daily for up to 41 months is safe.

Studies show it doesn’t cause significant liver problems or raise red flags in liver function tests. For instance, lab studies show silymarin has some effects on certain liver enzymes and transporters. 

However, little evidence suggests it causes problems when combined with standard medicines. Nevertheless, checking with a healthcare provider before taking supplements is always essential.

Who Can Not Take the Supplement?

Do not take silymarin supplements if you have allergies to the asters. It includes chrysanthemums, daisies, and marigolds.

People with hormone-sensitive conditions should avoid taking silymarin supplements. Examples are breast and ovarian cancer and uterus problems. Milk thistle can act like the hormone estrogen, which might worsen these conditions.

And lastly, stay away from silymarin if you have diabetes, which may lower blood sugar levels. However, talk to your healthcare provider if dosing needs adjustment.

One clinical study found that silymarin is safe during pregnancy. It didn’t cause any harm to the baby. But, more research is needed since evidence of its safety is lacking. It is still essential to be extra cautious. Speak with your healthcare provider if you are pregnant and intend to take silymarin supplements.

There is also not enough proof of the effects of supplements on children. So, check with a healthcare provider to ensure safety.

It Can Interact with Medicines and Herbs

You must take note of the possible interactions. Avoiding silymarin is best if you take any of these drugs and supplements.

  • Diabetes drugs: Increase your risk of low blood sugar levels
  • Ledipasvir for liver disease: Slow the removal of ledipasvir in your body and increase the effect of it
  • Raloxifene for bones: Less able to remove the raloxifene in your body and increase levels of it
  • Tamoxifen for hormone therapy: Increase tamoxifen levels
  • Warfarin for blood clotting: Increase the risk of bleeding
  • Herbs and supplements that lower blood sugar levels: Might have additive effects in reducing blood sugar levels

Most of these drugs and herbs may moderately conflict with milk thistle. Talking to your healthcare provider minimizes your risk of experiencing untoward effects.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question 1: What benefit can I gain from taking milk thistle?

Milk thistle contains silymarin that promotes liver health. Silymarin works by increasing antioxidant activity which helps protect liver cells from damage or injury. 

Question 2: Are milk thistle supplements safe to take?

Milk thistle supplements are generally safe for most people when taken as recommended. However, some people may experience mild side effects such as upset stomach or diarrhea. It may cause allergic reactions. So it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider before taking supplements.

Question 3: How should I take milk thistle supplements?

Milk thistle supplements are available in various forms, such as capsules, tablets, or liquid extracts. The recommended dosage and form may vary depending on health status and goals. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions or talk to your healthcare provider before taking milk thistle supplements.


Milk thistle is a powerful herb that exhibits many modes of action. It results in many potential health benefits. It contains silymarin, which may protect your cells from toxins and inflammation. Moreover, it could protect you against cancer, viruses, and even harmful UV light. 

As a result, it may keep your brain, heart, and liver healthy. Although, talk to your healthcare provider before adding it to your diet.

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