Milk Thistle: A Therapeutic Herb for Liver & Gallbladder Support
Milk Thistle: A Therapeutic Herb for Liver & Gallbladder Health
Ancient civilizations knew of the medicinal capabilities of milk thistle thousands of years ago. Indeed, it has been used therapeutically for over 2,000 years as a natural way to support the liver and gallbladder and to help heal them.
In modern homeopathy, milk thistle is one of the most commonly used natural medicines in the world for various health conditions, and it is the most frequently used herbs for liver support and helping with a range of conditions, including cirrhosis, viral hepatitis, fatty liver disease, or a high level of toxins in the liver.
It may also help with conditions of the liver that require the use of hepatotoxic medicine. More recently, scientists are discovering that milk thistle can be used to help with heart conditions and diabetes (2).
However, it remains the primary natural supplement with proven liver support, namely for its hepatoprotective properties, but also for its antioxidative, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory effects.
What Makes Milk Thistle A Potent Herbal Supplement?
Milk thistle is a common, weed-like plant and member of the ragweed and daisy family. Although it is native to Mediterranean countries, southern Russia, and parts of Asia, milk thistle has been naturalized to North and South America and is widespread throughout this region of the world.
It can grow up to ten feet tall and bears reddish-purple flowers when in bloom. Owed to its name, the plant secretes a milky white fluid when its leaves are crushed. The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin, which contains flavonoids – phytonutrients found in many fruits and vegetables that, in recent years, scientists have been touting for their myriad health benefits.
Silymarin is a large part of what makes milk thistle a powerful herb for liver health. The three main flavonoids found in silymarin are silybin (silibinin), silydianin (silidianin), and silychristin (silicristin). However, silybin is the most potent of the three, and the most beneficial constituent of milk thistle for health.
Among the therapeutic benefits of flavonoids are their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants are necessary defenders against the effects of free radicals, which damage the body at the cellular level, leaving us prone to disease.
In their investigation of the role of oxidative stress on the liver, Polish researchers suggest that oxidative stress, which occurs when an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants exist because the body is unable to detoxify or repair damage, may have a role in the structural and functional abnormalities of the liver (3).
Such a conclusion supports existing scientific knowledge about the benefits of antioxidants on overall health. More specifically, they can assist the liver’s ability to protect and repair itself.
Other scientific reviews also confirm that milk thistle has antioxidative and anti-inflammatory protective effects (4). Anti-inflammatories are necessary for protecting us from disease. Primarily, they help protect us from the presence of low-grade, chronic inflammation in the body.
It is essential to get both antioxidants and anti-inflammatories in their most natural, potent form by taking herbal supplements of plant extracts; Synthetic versions of either will have other potentially harmful side effects that may counteract their positive effects…
Because milk thistle also has hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic properties, it may also help lower blood sugar and high cholesterol. In contrast to conventional medicines, which commonly have several side effects, herbal supplements have side benefits.
Any herbal supplement that supports the liver essentially supports the entire body. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the potent effect of milk thistle and silymarin on liver health can, incidentally, help with other conditions that are (seemingly) unrelated to the liver.
The Role of the Liver & Gallbladder in Digestion
Numerous studies have supported the therapeutic use of milk thistle for treating conditions of the liver and gallbladder, which in turn, affects digestive health. In many alternative medicines, such as Ayurveda (India’s traditional system of health), a properly functioning digestive system plays a primary role in overall health and can prevent the onset of many diseases.
Our bodies are comprised of food. In biological terms, we are what we eat. But, more accurately, we are what we digest. However, food must endure a transformation via the process of digestion to ensure the assimilation of nutrients and the removal of waste for our bodies to thrive.
The digestive system is composed of several interdependent organs, and the liver is one of the most essential because it is a key player in the transformation of matter into energy within our bodies. It is our largest vital organ and the only part of the human body that can regenerate if damaged.
It is responsible for breaking down food, purifying the blood, manufacturing bile and proteins, and storing and converting energy. Among traditional medicine doctors is a firm belief that the liver is a storehouse for emotion.
Unresolved emotions may linger in the liver, causing stress and hindering its ability to function correctly. (We’ve all experienced the physical impact of emotional stress on the body, so even if you don’t subscribe to this belief, emotional release is, arguably, as crucial to a healthy liver as a clean diet.) Therefore, you want to make sure you have a happy and healthy liver.
Milk thistle also supports the gallbladder, which is a small pear-shaped organ that sits just below the liver. Its primary function is to store and release bile into the small intestine during the digestion of food.
It acts as a reservoir for bile, which becomes concentrated through prolonged contact with the gallbladder’s absorbent lining. During digestion, as food enters the small intestine, the duodenum releases a hormone called cholecystokinin, which signals to the gallbladder to contract and release bile.
The role of bile in digestion is to emulsify fats and distribute them to the body and drain waste from the liver. Although the gallbladder is not a vital organ, without it, bile would flow continuously from the liver to the small intestine for lack of a reservoir, making less bile available during digestion.
Thus, a healthy gallbladder supports optimal digestive function and can prevent permanent digestive issues such as chronic diarrhea. Let’s take a look at how to use milk thistle for liver and gallbladder health.
How Milk Thistle Supports Liver & Gallbladder Health
The findings of several studies worldwide substantiate the claims of ancient medicines that milk thistle can support liver cell regeneration and may also help people with cancer (5). But one of the key ways milk thistle supports liver and gallbladder health is through its hepatoprotective properties. Bioactive silymarin may inhibit toxins from accumulating in liver cells and support the removal of existing poisons from hepatocytes (6).
It also accelerates the healing process of damaged liver cells and stimulates protein synthesis (7), a function of the liver in the metabolic process. It’s not a stretch to say that milk thistle is a powerful herb for the liver and the gallbladder.
Diseases of the Liver & Gallbladder
When disease affects the liver, the entire body is affected. This vital organ is our main instrument for waste removal and proper digestion. If the body is unable to digest food, extract nutrients, and eliminate waste properly, health complications will result…
In some cases, our overall energy will become compromised, making daily life challenging (a failure to thrive) and causing skin issues, excess body weight, emaciation, or psychological issues such as depression. But more serious, unseen conditions may occur.
Excess fat or sugar may collect in the blood causing heart dysfunction or insulin resistance. Toxins may accumulate in the intestine and interfere with optimal digestive functioning, leading to diseases that may or may not be treated or cured.
Prolonged alcohol use, toxins in food, certain pharmaceutical drugs, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are factors that can impair proper liver and gallbladder functioning. Physiological symptoms of a liver condition may include the following: dark urine, a distended abdomen, nausea, fatigue and weakness, poor or no appetite, or yellow-hued skin or eye sclera.
Jaundice is another indication of liver disease. It is characterized by the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes caused by excess bilirubin, a waste material in the blood.
Jaundice is usually caused by inflammation or obstruction in the bile duct or an inflamed liver as a result of an underlying disease of the liver. It is primarily related to liver functioning so maintaining a healthy liver can prevent its occurrence and other conditions associated with the liver.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by infections, toxic substances, viruses, and autoimmune diseases. The viruses, categorized as A, B, C, D, and E are the most common causes of hepatitis. Milk thistle has known antiviral properties, which may supplement the treatment of viral hepatitis.
The conclusion of a review of several studies investigating the therapeutic use of milk thistle highlights positive results for the supportive healing effect of silymarin on cirrhosis and toxic build up in the liver (8), as well as an improvement in the status of Hepatitis C when used in conjunction with antiviral therapy (3).
Cirrhosis typically results from hepatitis or alcoholism. It is characterized by the loss of liver cells and the scarring of liver tissue. Life expectancy for people with cirrhosis is about 50% (9). Silymarin may be an effective adjuvant to people recovering from alcoholic liver disease, such as cirrhosis (10).
One review of the research found that out of six controlled human trials of milk thistle as treatment for chronic alcoholic liver disease, four showed significant improvement in liver function by at least one measure, compared to the placebo (11). Similarly, in studies of chronic liver disease of mixed etiologies, some showed significant improvement (11).
Transaminases are enzymes that have an important role in amino acid synthesis and the manufacturing of protein in the digestive process. Increased levels of these enzymes may indicate liver damage. In a recent clinical trial of patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the combined use of silymarin and vitamin E showed a decrease in the level of transaminases, suggesting that milk thistle may improve the health prognosis of people with a damaged liver (12).
Gallstones form when there is high cholesterol in the gallbladder and when fat binds with other matter in the bile and becomes lodged in the gallbladder. Because milk thistle has hypolipidemic properties and promotes liver and gallbladder detoxification, it supports a healthy flow of bile and may help treat and prevent the formation of gallstones.
Many types of liver diseases are incurable and require long-term use of pharmaceutical drugs. However, most diseases can be prevented through conscious daily care of our physical and emotional health.
We don’t need to wait until disease affects us!
Instead, more people are making prevention their number one health hack by cultivating a healthy lifestyle and turning to therapeutic herbs, such as milk thistle, to boost their immunity, reduce stress naturally, and strengthen their vital organs.
Other Benefits of Milk Thistle for the Body
In addition to its positive effects on the liver, silymarin has also been intensely studied for its potential to improve cardiovascular health, provide support to people with diabetes, help with kidney damage, and build sturdier bones, among many other medicinal uses (click here for a comprehensive list of its health benefits).
One reason the scientific community is scrutinizing milk thistle recently is for its potential to promote heart health. Research has found that silymarin may lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, which can decrease the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, it may help counteract the increase of liver enzymes, a common side effect of many medications for high cholesterol (13).
Milk thistle has also been found to assist the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Diabetes, a disease that affects 26 million adults in America (13), is a chronic condition of insulin resistance, in which the body’s ability to use insulin is impaired.
Insulin resistance primarily happens in the fat, liver, and muscle cells.
This increasingly common disease is preventable through the maintenance of a healthy liver. This involves lifestyle adjustments such as daily exercise, low alcohol intake (or abstaining from drinking altogether), and a clean, wholesome diet that supports natural liver detoxification.
Medical studies demonstrate that milk thistle and silymarin can decrease the body’s insulin requirement and reduce blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes (2).
Side Effects of Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is an extremely gentle herbal therapy for supporting liver and gallbladder support. Very few side effects are associated with long-term use of milk thistle as a supplement. Any side effects that may appear generally affect the digestive tract, including diarrhea, nausea, and bloating.
Because milk thistle is a member of the ragweed family, those with an allergy to ragweed may experience a severe rash and should avoid taking milk thistle supplements. Also, women with high levels of estrogen or conditions resulting from high estrogen should not take milk thistle because it has been shown to mimic the effects of estrogen in the female body.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult a doctor before beginning any course of milk thistle supplements.
How To Take Milk Thistle
Milk thistle may be consumed a variety of ways. Some choose to eat it in its raw, natural form or by boiling the roots and shoots. The spiny bracts can be eaten like artichoke, and the stem may be stewed after peeling and soaking. The leaves may also be included in a salad mix. Milk thistle tea is also a popular way to reap its benefits; however, a liquid or capsule extract is most effective.
Some experts also recommend taking silymarin in conjunction with other liver-supporting herbs, such as turmeric and bupleurum. Like most herbal medicines, its efficacy lies in its synergy with other healing botanicals.
For a comprehensive liver support formula comprised of organic and GMO-free herbs, try Liver Reboot, a daily liver-cleansing formula. When taking milk thistle for medicinal use, a primary consideration is the bioavailability of the active compound silymarin. If you wish to take milk thistle on its own, ensure the supplement you choose is a concentrated extract such as Milk Thistle 4x.
Milk Thistle FAQs
Is long-term use of milk thistle safe?
Milk thistle is a well-tolerated herbal supplement safe for long-term use. However, medicinal herbs can have a surprising potency so consulting with a doctor to ensure it is right for you. You will likely have no problems with silymarin, however, it’s always smart to double check.
How much milk thistle should I take for a liver cleanse?
As a temporary, potent liver cleanse, you probably want to take around 150 mg one to three times a day. For ongoing liver support, 50-150 mg daily is a safe dose.
Where can I buy milk thistle?
Milk thistle is a commonly-used herb for supporting liver health and benefiting overall health. Most pharmacies, natural food stores, and online proprietors sell milk thistle supplements. However, not all are created equal.
Ensure any supplement you buy is suitable for vegans, made with organic, ethically-sourced ingredients, and is free of GMOs. Always read the reviews or ask for a doctor’s recommendation before making your purchase.
Can I take milk thistle with my medication?
Milk thistle has a moderate interaction with certain medications. Because the liver is an organ of detoxification and metabolism, herbal supplements that impact its functioning may change the way it breaks down some medications. Consult with your doctor before taking milk thistle supplements to ensure it will not interact negatively with your medication.
Milk thistle has been used for thousands of years for natural liver detoxification. It supports the liver’s ability to heal itself by assisting in cellular regeneration.
Silymarin, its active compound has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can hinder free radical damage and keep disease away. Numerous research studies have found that silymarin is hepatoprotective, can reduce blood sugar levels benefiting people with diabetes, and can help lower blood cholesterol levels.
A properly operating digestive system is one of the primary indicators of health, and an optimally functioning liver is essential to good digestion. Put simply:
Milk thistle helps liver function → Liver function helps digestion → Digestion helps health
With over 500 functions to perform to maintain homeostasis throughout the body, including detoxification, the liver requires conscious attention and care. Similarly, natural gallbladder support is important because the gallbladder plays a crucial role in the storage and release of bile, necessary for transporting nutrients to the body tissues.
What is good for the liver will positively affect gallbladder function.
Maintaining a clean liver by engaging in healthy lifestyle practices, eating natural foods free of preservatives, and abstaining from drug and alcohol use (or at the very least, limiting consumption) serves the digestive system well and affects overall health.
Herbal supplements are a natural way to give the liver the boost it needs to enhance its ability to detoxify the body. Remember, when selecting supplements, choose organic, GMO-free capsules that include other liver detox herbs, such as Liver Reboot, to capitalize on their synergistic healing effects.
Note: All research studies primarily referred to in this article are based on human clinical trials and do not use any animal testing. The exclusion of animal laboratory research is in line with our cruelty-free approach to creating health and wellness products that support ecological sustainability and respect the harmony of the holistic environment at every stage of development, from seed to sale.
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