Milk thistle: Benefits, dangers, dosage, uses, precautions, forms

Milk thistle, a medicinal plant with a history of therapeutic use, has intrigued health enthusiasts and experts for centuries.

Its distinctive purple flowers and spiky leaves make it instantly recognizable as a plant native to the Mediterranean region.

Beyond its beauty, milk thistle boasts a wealth of potential health benefits, primarily due to its main active component, Silymarin.

This component is believed to hold antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and liver-protecting properties. 

As more people look towards natural remedies for overall well-being, the relevance of milk thistle continues to grow.

This blog offers a comprehensive look into this remarkable plant’s benefits, dangers, dosage, uses, precautions, and forms.

What is milk thistle?

Milk thistle, scientifically known as Silybum marianum, is a flowering plant from the Mediterranean region.

Recognizable for its purple flowers and spiky leaves, it belongs to the same plant family as daisies and sunflowers. 

This plant has been revered for its medicinal properties for centuries, catching the attention of ancient herbalists and modern-day researchers.

Milk thistle contains Silymarin, a compound found in the seeds that give the plant its medicinal properties.

Silymarin is made up of flavonolignans, with the most active ingredient being a flavonolignan called silybin [1].

This component has sparked interest for its potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and liver-protecting effects.

Over the years, milk thistle has gained popularity not just for liver ailments but also for various health concerns, from skin issues to blood sugar management. 

As more research emerges about its benefits and potential applications, milk thistle is at the forefront of discussions on natural remedies and overall health.

Featured product offer
Future Kind+ Vegan Milk Thistle Seed Liver Cleanse Supplement
  • Contains 175 mg of milk thistle seed 80% extract and 275 mg of milk thistle seed powder.
  • Rich of antioxidants and 100% dairy free, despite the name.
  • Free from GMOs, gluten, soy, wheat, yeast, animal derivatives, artificial colors, or preservatives.

What are the benefits of milk thistle?

Milk thistle has become popular due to its wide range of potential benefits. Let’s explore some of the most significant advantages of integrating milk thistle into your health routine.

1. Revitalizes liver health

Arguably the most well-known benefit of milk thistle is its positive impact on liver health. The liver, a vital organ that filters toxins from the blood, can be vulnerable to various diseases and conditions. 

Milk thistle is believed to support liver cells, combatting damage from toxins and aiding regeneration.

Research suggests that Silymarin, its primary component, can even offer protection against certain toxins, including those from alcohol consumption [2].

2. Neutralizes free radicals with antioxidants

Free radicals, unstable atoms that can damage cells, play a role in aging and several diseases.

Milk thistle’s antioxidant properties help counteract these free radicals, supporting overall cell health and reducing the risk of damage.

By fending off oxidative stress, it can potentially play a part in preventing degenerative diseases.

3. Reduces inflammation

Chronic inflammation can be a silent contributor to numerous health conditions. Milk thistle has shown promise as an anti-inflammatory agent, which can have broader implications for overall health.

By reducing inflammation, it might support the body in combating a range of illnesses, from skin conditions to more serious internal diseases.

4. Enhances skin vitality

While often associated with internal health, milk thistle also has benefits for the skin. Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties can assist in reducing skin redness and irritation.

Some studies even suggest that it can be a valuable ally against acne and other skin conditions, leading to its inclusion in various skincare products.

enhances skin vitality
Photograph: andriymedvediuk/Envato

5. Regulates blood sugar

Maintaining stable blood sugar levels is essential for overall health, particularly for those with diabetes.

Preliminary research suggests that milk thistle can play a role in supporting healthy blood sugar levels [3].

Its potential to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation makes it a subject of interest among those seeking natural ways to manage blood sugar.

6. Combats cancer cell growth

Though research is still in its early stages, some studies hint at milk thistle’s potential anti-cancer properties [4].

Its role in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells, especially in breast, cervical, and prostate cancers, makes it a fascinating study area.

However, it’s essential to note that more rigorous research is needed before drawing definitive conclusions.

7. Lowers cholesterol levels

Heart health remains a prime concern worldwide. Milk thistle, with its potential to lower harmful cholesterol levels, can be an addition to one’s heart health toolkit.

By promoting healthier cholesterol levels, it might contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease.

8. Promotes digestive wellness

Digestion plays a crucial role in overall well-being. Some users find relief from digestive issues, including indigestion and heartburn, after using milk thistle.

Although not a primary benefit, its ability to promote a healthy digestive system is an added bonus.

While it’s essential to approach its use with knowledge and care, milk thistle certainly holds promise as a multifaceted tool for health and wellness.

As always, one should consult with healthcare professionals before making significant changes to their health regimen.

Dangers and side effects of milk thistle

It’s important to approach the use of milk thistle with a balanced perspective, despite its range of health benefits. As with any natural remedy or supplement, milk thistle has potential side effects and risks. 

1. General side effects

The majority of people tolerate milk thistle well. However, some might experience digestive discomfort, including nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Additionally, headaches and skin reactions such as rashes have been reported, albeit less commonly.

2. Allergic reactions

Those allergic to plants in the Asteraceae family (which includes ragweed, marigold, and daisies) might also react to milk thistle [5]. 

Symptoms can range from mild skin irritations to more severe reactions like difficulty breathing. If you suspect an allergic reaction, stop using it and consult a medical professional.

3. Medication interactions

Milk thistle has the potential to interact with certain medications. It can impact drugs metabolized by the liver, altering their effectiveness. 

People taking medication for diabetes, antipsychotics, or specific cholesterol drugs need to be careful and take precautions.

Always consult with a healthcare provider before combining milk thistle with prescription medications.

4. Hormonal implications

Some research suggests that milk thistle can mimic the effects of estrogen [6]. Individuals with conditions sensitive to the hormone, such as some breast cancers, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids, should be cautious. 

Though conclusive evidence is lacking, it’s worth noting and discussing with a healthcare professional if in doubt.

5. Blood sugar concerns

While milk thistle can aid in stabilizing blood sugar, it might pose a risk when combined with blood sugar-lowering medications. This could lead to deficient blood sugar levels, which can be dangerous. 

Those on such medications should monitor their blood sugar levels closely and discuss any supplements with their doctor.

6. Overconsumption risks

As with many supplements, excessive consumption can lead to adverse effects. High doses of milk thistle might cause more severe gastrointestinal issues, or even lead to heartburn, loss of appetite, and potential liver damage.

7. Pregnancy and breastfeeding

The safety of milk thistle during pregnancy and breastfeeding hasn’t been conclusively studied. As a precaution, expecting or nursing mothers should avoid its use or consult with a healthcare expert.

Who should not take milk thistle?

Despite its potential benefits, milk thistle might not be suitable for everyone. Certain individuals should be cautious with milk thistle, these include people who have:

Allergy concerns

People allergic to plants in the Asteraceae family, including:

  • Ragweed
  • Marigold
  • Daisies

Such individuals may also react adversely to milk thistle.

Hormone-sensitive conditions

Those diagnosed with conditions that are sensitive to estrogen, such as:

  • Certain breast cancers
  • Endometriosis
  • Uterine fibroids

Milk thistle could potentially mimic estrogen effects.

Medication interactions

People on specific medications should consult with a healthcare provider, especially those on:

  • Diabetes medications
  • Drugs impacting liver metabolism

Pregnancy and nursing

Expecting or breastfeeding mothers, due to:

  • Limited studies on milk thistle safety during these stages
  • Potential risks to the baby

It’s vital to prioritize health and safety when considering any supplement, and consulting with a healthcare professional is always recommended.

Featured product offer
Herbal Roots Milk Thistle Capsules
  • Made with organic milk thistle seed powder and extract, containing 80% standardized silymarin.
  • 100% pure vegan capsules, no added ingredients. GMP-certified, non-GMO, gluten-free.
  • Independently tested for quality.

How much milk thistle should you take?

Find the right dosage of milk thistle to benefit safely. Use this guide for understanding and recommendations.

1. Standard dosage

Typically, milk thistle supplements contain 70-80% silymarin. Experts often suggest a daily dose of 200 to 400mg for liver-related conditions [7], divided into two or three intakes.

However, the optimal dose can vary depending on the condition being addressed and the individual’s body weight.

2. Duration of use

Short-term milk thistle supplementation, usually around 4-6 weeks, is common for specific ailments. For chronic conditions or long-term wellness goals, longer periods might be suitable, but regular health check-ups are essential.

3. Liquid extracts and tinctures

When opting for liquid extracts or tinctures, following the manufacturer’s instructions carefully is crucial. The concentration of active compounds can differ between brands, affecting the required dose.

4. When to take

Milk thistle can be taken with or without food. However, some users find it easier on the stomach when taken with a meal, reducing the chances of digestive discomfort.

5. Adjustments for specific populations

Children, elderly individuals, or those with certain health conditions might need adjusted dosages. Consulting with a healthcare provider ensures that the dose is both safe and effective for the individual’s specific needs.

6. Importance of quality

Always choose high-quality milk thistle supplements from reputable manufacturers. This ensures the product is free from contaminants and aligns with potency claims.

What is milk thistle good for?

Milk thistle’s multifaceted uses range from detoxification to inclusion in skincare products. Let’s explore the prominent ways this potent plant is employed.

1. As a detoxifying agent

Milk thistle’s prowess in aiding detoxification is well-recognized. It helps cleanse the body of harmful toxins, especially after periods of excess, be it due to diet, alcohol, or environmental pollutants. 

This detoxifying effect is largely attributed to its active compound, silymarin, known for its protective and rejuvenating properties.

2. For liver ailments

People commonly turn to milk thistle to combat liver diseases, protect liver cells, and stimulate their regeneration. The herb has been a go-to remedy, especially for issues arising from overconsumption of alcohol or exposure to harmful toxins affecting the liver.

3. Dietary supplement

As a dietary supplement, milk thistle offers a range of benefits from supporting digestive health to enhancing cardiovascular functions.

Its potential in regulating blood sugar and bolstering the immune system also makes it a preferred supplement for holistic health enthusiasts.

4. In skin care products

Milk thistle’s benefits aren’t just internal. The skincare industry embraces it for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

These qualities make milk thistle ideal for products targeting acne-prone skin, redness, and oxidative damage. Many seek its promise of keeping skin radiant and youthful.

traditional and folk medicine uses

5. Traditional and folk medicine uses

Historically, cultures worldwide have leveraged its therapeutic properties to treat a medley of ailments.

From soothing indigestion to promoting bone health, its time-tested applications highlight its versatility and enduring relevance.

Milk thistle’s diverse applications underscore its significant role in contemporary health practices and traditional remedies. 

Whether integrated into daily routines or sought out for targeted benefits, its multifaceted uses make milk thistle a plant of distinction in natural health.

Different forms of milk thistle available

Whether you’re aiming for convenience, potency, or versatility, there’s likely a format that fits your needs. Here’s a look at the most common forms available on the market.

1. Capsules and tablets

Perhaps the most straightforward way to consume milk thistle, capsules and tablets offer precision.

Users can easily track and integrate their dosage into their daily supplement routine. It’s ideal for those who seek simplicity and consistency in their consumption.

2. Liquid extracts and tinctures

For those who wish for faster absorption, liquid extracts and tinctures are an excellent choice.

These concentrated forms are typically combined with water or added to teas and drinks. Their potent nature allows for flexibility in dosage, and many appreciate their immediate impact.

3. Powdered form

Milk thistle powder provides versatility. It can be sprinkled on foods, mixed into smoothies, or even used in baking.

This form retains many of the plant’s benefits and can easily be incorporated into daily meals and snacks for those wanting a more natural integration of the supplement.

4. Whole seed form

For purists, milk thistle seeds offer the most natural experience. They can be ground and added to dishes, brewed as tea, or even consumed directly. Using the seeds ensures you get a full spectrum of the plant’s components.

5. Topical products

Exploiting its skincare benefits, milk thistle is now found in creams, serums, and lotions. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are harnessed to address skin issues and maintain a radiant complexion.

How to choose the right milk thistle form for you

Selecting the right form of milk thistle largely depends on personal preferences, intended use, and lifestyle considerations. Here’s a quick guide to help you make an informed choice:

1. Assess your primary goal

If you aim to support liver health or address specific health concerns, capsules or tinctures might offer more concentrated benefits.

On the other hand, for general well-being or dietary integration, the powdered or whole-seed form might be ideal.

2. Convenience factor

For those always on the move, capsules or tablets are easy to carry and require no preparation. Liquid extracts, while still portable, may need mixing or dilution.

3. Dietary considerations

If you enjoy experimenting with foods, the powdered form allows you to integrate milk thistle into recipes, smoothies, or teas. Whole seeds, similarly, can be ground or infused as per taste.

4. Skincare enthusiasts

If your primary interest lies in skincare, topical products infused with milk thistle extract would be best. These harness its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties for skin benefits.

5. Authentic experience

For those who value a more organic, unprocessed experience, whole seeds offer a direct connection to the plant in its natural state.

Closing thoughts

Milk thistle is a natural remedy with a long history and scientific backing for various health benefits, making it a popular choice for those seeking natural wellness solutions. 

From its liver-supporting qualities to its potential role in skincare, its diverse applications cater to a range of health priorities.

As with any supplement, understanding its various forms and discerning which suits your needs best ensures a rewarding experience. 

Whether you’re drawn to its research-backed benefits or are exploring which form aligns with your lifestyle, milk thistle stands as a versatile and potent ally in the journey toward optimal health.

FAQs

Is it OK to take milk thistle every day?

Yes, many people take milk thistle daily as a supplement for its potential health benefits. However, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any regular supplementation to ensure it’s safe and suitable for your individual needs.

What is milk thistle bad for?

Milk thistle may cause side effects in some people, including gastrointestinal issues like nausea, bloating, or diarrhea. Additionally, it might interact with certain medications, making it essential for individuals to consult with a healthcare professional before use.

Does milk thistle affect kidneys?

Milk thistle is primarily studied for its potential benefits on the liver, but limited research suggests it might also have protective effects on the kidneys. However, individuals with kidney conditions or those taking medications should consult with a healthcare professional before using milk thistle to ensure safety.

Is milk thistle FDA approved?

Milk thistle is classified as a dietary supplement, and the FDA does not approve dietary supplements in the same way it does drugs. While manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety and labeling accuracy of their products, it’s essential to choose reputable brands and consult with a healthcare professional before use.

Featured product offer
Botanic Choice Milk Thistle Extract
  • Offers liver protection and combats free radicals with high silymarin content (80 mg).
  • Easy-to-follow dosage of 1 capsule 3x daily.
  • Suitable for gluten-sensitive and non-GMO preferring individuals.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6150307/ 
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7140758/ 
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25396404/ 
[4] https://ejbc.kr/DOIx.php?id=10.4048/jbc.2011.14.1.8 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4165197/ 
[6] https://www.rxlist.com/milk_thistle/supplements.htm
[7] https://www.drugs.com/npp/milk-thistle.html

Photograph: XandriethXs/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.