Guide to milk thistle

Milk thistle has been used in herbal medicine for at least 2,000 years as a natural treatment for liver disorders.

In the UK, the milk thistle supplement is classed as a traditional herbal medicine and registered under the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme. Based on traditional use only, it has been proven to relieve symptoms associated with occasional over-indulgence of food and drink.

The milk thistle plant, a member of the sunflower family, is native to the Mediterranean region but now grows around the world. According to folklore, its white-veined leaves came from the Virgin Mary’s milk. It is mainly the seeds of the plant that are used medicinally though.

Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Milk thistle is used as herbal medicine to support liver health. It may also help with indigestion, heartburn and gallbladder disorders. Clinical trials suggest it is beneficial for people with liver disease and those with drug and alcohol-related liver problems. Other research suggests it might help the liver after exposure to chemical pollutants and some medicines.’

What does milk thistle do?

The active ingredients extracted from milk thistle seed is silymarin, a mixture of antioxidants which include silibin (also known as silybinin). Silymarin helps to protect cells from damage from the action of free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules).

Silymarin may help repair, protect and stimulate regeneration of liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances. It appears to work by maintaining or increasing levels of the liver’s own protective antioxidant, glutathione. Silymarin may also help with the digestion of fats.

Liver health

Silymarin may help with repairing and regenerating liver cells, so it has become a popular remedy for hangovers. Although milk thistle hasn’t been specially investigated for curing hangovers, some research has suggested it may improve liver function. In one review, which included six studies of milk thistle and chronic alcoholic liver disease, four reported a significant improvement in some liver functions.

Indigestion and stomach upsets

Milk Thistle can help relieve the symptoms of over-indulgence and indigestion, providing a natural way to help cure an upset stomach.

Getting milk thistle from your diet

You can drink milk thistle as a tea or a tincture, available from health food stores, although the components of milk thistle (seeds) are not very soluble in water so the effect is usually weak. Alternatively, take milk thistle in supplement form.

Safety

Milk thistle is considered safe to use for most people, with only occasional reports of mild stomach upsets or rashes.

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid milk thistle, and caution is advisable for anyone taking medication for liver disease; always check with your doctor.

Milk thistle may produce allergic reactions, which tend to be more common among people who are allergic to plants in the same family (for example, ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold, and daisy). If you have diabetes, consult with your doctor before taking it because compounds in milk thistle may lower blood sugar levels.

Correct dosage

There’s currently no UK or EU recommended daily allowance or upper safe limit. Standard doses available include one tablet of 193-261mg standardised extract taken up to twice a day.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

Milk thistle is used as herbal medicine to support liver health. It may also help with indigestion, heartburn and gallbladder disorders.

Dr Sarah Brewer
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