Digestion, Diabetes, Heart | May 5, 2017 | Author: Naturopath
Silybum marianum, otherwise known as St Mary’s thistle or milk thistle, is one of the most popular herbs used in Western herbal medicine renowned for its benefits on the liver. It is widely used to protect the liver against a range of drugs and environmental poisons, as well as to support healthy digestion, especially of fatty foods. Recent research also suggests milk thistle has anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, anti-ageing and cholesterol lowering properties, while also providing cardiovascular protection.
The name milk thistle comes from its characteristically spiked leaves with white veins. According to legend, these white veins were believed to carry the milk of the Virgin Mary. It’s the ripe seeds that are used for therapeutic purposes which are rich in a mixture of different antioxidants referred to as silymarin. Silybin, the principal component of silymarin is regarded as one of the most biologically active constituents. Milk thistle can be taken in a multitude of different ways—tea, tincture or pill. Sometimes formulas just use a silymarin extract.
Milk thistle’s main benefit is to provide protection to the liver by its many antioxidant mechanisms. Multiple clinical trials have demonstrated milk thistle to be beneficial in the treatment of toxic liver damage, chronic inflammatory liver disease, hepatitis, and liver cirrhosis. However, for the average person milk thistle can be helpful for general digestive and liver health…as, let’s face it, our liver can get a work out just by consuming a typical western diet.
Milk thistle is a powerful detoxifier—rebuilding liver cells while removing toxins from the body that are processed through the liver.
It is very effective in reducing the damaging effects of alcohol consumption, chemicals such as pesticides in the food we eat and the pollution in the air we breathe in.
The liver is our largest internal organ responsible for cleaning our blood, aids in hormone production and releases bile for healthy digestion of fats.
It is involved in hormone regulation and releases glucose into our bloodstream to give our body a steady source of energy. As the liver works closely with other organs such as the kidneys, gallbladder and intestines, there is also a protective effect on these organs too.
Silymarin, extracted from milk thistle is associated with a decreased risk for cancer development by boosting the function of the immune system, preventing damage to our DNA and reversing cancerous tumour growth. There is strong pre-clinical evidence that silymarin inhibits cancer cell growth in human prostate, skin, breast, colon and cervical cells. Researchers at the University Magna Graecia Department believe silymarin acts as a cancer protector because it’s a toxin blockade agent –inhibiting toxins from binding to cell membrane receptors.
Milk thistle has anti-inflammatory properties due to, yet again, it’s potent antioxidant activity. However, there are several other mechanisms that help it to reduce inflammation and this includes it's ability to stabilise membranes and inhibit inflammatory mediators.
Inflammation is one of the main causes of heart disease and milk thistle helps to lower cholesterol by cleaning the blood and preventing oxidative stress within the arteries.
A recent study has shown that silymarin extract, when used in combination with other traditional treatment methods, such as diet changes, stress reduction and exercise, resulted in improved total cholesterol (including LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and triglyceride levels.
Silymarin has been investigated in people with type 2 diabetes. When combined with conventional treatments, Silymarin can help control the symptoms of diabetes by aiding in glycaemic control. One 2006 study found that 200mg of silymarin taken 3 times a day over 4 months by diabetic patients resulted in a significant reduction in their fasting blood glucose and insulin levels. Other observations from other studies found a decrease of sugars in the urine and levels of glycosylated haemoglobin, indicating an overall improvement in glucose control. Interestingly, supplementation with silymarin didn’t lead to an increase in hypoglycaemic episodes and is also safe to take in conjunction with conventional therapy.
Silymarin has been shown to be effective in inhibiting UV induced oxidative stress on the skin that can lead to skin diseases such as skin cancer. Applying silymarin to the skin reduces skin damage caused by radiation treatment in patients who had treatments for cancer.
Milk thistle’s protective qualities also prevents other forms of skin damage such as dark spots, wrinkles, lines and discolouration. Not only does it help boost skin health it can actually protect your organs and can reduce your risk of some of the most common and serious aging disorders. These include cancer, kidney and liver damage, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, aged skin and vision-related problems.
For people with haemochromatosis, a common genetic disorder which results in too much iron in the body, milk thistle can be used to reduce iron absorption and reduce the damage it causes. Excess iron increases oxidative stress and milk thistle exerts antioxidant activity which therefore decreases the consequences of free radical damage.
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Milk thistle is considered a very safe and well-tolerated herb, with a minimal drug interaction risk. Although rare, the most common side effects relate to gastrointestinal symptoms such as loose bowels. It is however, not recommended for people who have a known allergy to the Asteraceae (Compositae) family of plants which includes sunflowers and daisies.
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Abenavoli L, et al. Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future. Phytother Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):1423-32
Voroneanu L. Silymarin in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Diabetes Res. 2016;2016:5147468