Can Milk Thistle Protect Your Liver From Disease?

Milk thistle has become a herbal leader in the treatment of liver disease due to its ability to help the liver detoxify the body.

The best way to take milk thistle is as a tea made from dried leaves and flowers, which can be found at health food stores or online. The recommended dose for adults is two cups per day. It should be taken on an empty stomach.

Milk thistle has also become one of the most physician recommended herbs for those individuals suffering with fatty liver disease, hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and gallbladder dysfunction.

Milk Thistle and Tea

How Milk Thistle Works

The main compound of the milk thistle plant is silymarin, shown to protect the liver from harmful substances and functions in five primary ways.

1. It strengthens the liver cells outer membranes to help prevent damaging toxins from penetrating the liver.

2. It neutralizes liver cell damage caused by toxins – its antioxidant action is 10x greater than those found in Vitamin E.

3. It helps to enhance protein synthesis.

4. It helps to reduce fibrotic activity.

5. It reduces inflammation in the liver.

What is Liver Disease?

Liver disease can be categorized as any type of ailment which decreases the liver’s ability to cleanse the blood. These ailments include but are not limited to chronic viral hepatitis, alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, all of which can lead to cirrhosis.

In addition, everyday toxins such as illicit drugs, prescription medications, mercury, heavy metals, poisonous mushrooms, certain types of anesthesia, and pesticides can inhibit your liver’s ability to cleanse your body.

For patients suffering with one or more of these ailments, doctors have been known to instruct their patients to start taking a milk thistle supplement. Why?

Patients suffering from hepatitis may benefit from a decrease in inflammation in the liver.

Taking a milk thistle supplement  increases the liver detoxifying abilities.

Lastly, exposure to those everyday toxins can elevate your liver enzymes. Taking the milk thistle product will help enable your liver to maintain the proper levels of liver enzymes, increasing your liver’s ability to cleanse your blood.

Milk Thistle and the Digestive System

Milk thistle’s properties don’t just help with liver function; it has also been shown to help improve the function of the bowels. Milk thistle has been shown to have a mild and gentle laxative quality to it.

Milk thistle helps to increase bile production and flow in the digestive tract. This mild laxative quality helps to lubricate and soften the stools, which can help with constipation.

Milk THistle

Liver Inflammation

In treatment of hepatitis, doctors often recommend milk thistle to alleviate the inflammation that the disease can cause. This ability of milk thistle to alleviate inflammation not only applies to hepatitis, but to all sorts of inflammation in the human body.

Milk thistle is categorized as a demulcent; meaning it has the ability to moisten and soothe inflammation in general, not just in the GI tract and liver.

It has been found especially helpful in the treatment of skin irritations and acne. Many patients reported an improved glow and radiance to their skin when taking milk thistle.

Disease of the Gallbladder

Milk thistle’s properties of reducing inflammation and increasing bile flow make it a natural treatment for those suffering with various diseases of the gallbladder.

Its ability to reduce inflammation in the gallbladder helps to relieve irritation and pain. In addition, increasing the bile flow flushes out any old material that may be present, including gallstones.

It is important that before initiating the use of milk thistle that it is confirmed that there are no gallstones present that are too big for the gallbladder to pass on its own. 

Possible Side Effects of Milk Thistle

Be prepared to deal with a mild case of one or more of the following when taking milk thistle:

  • Abdominal bloating, fullness or pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Headache
  • Skin reactions
  • Rhinoconjunctivitis
  • Anaphylaxis (rarely seen)

Milk thistle can interact with other medications and depending on the drug, increase or decrease efficacy.

In some cases, this interaction can lead to side effects. Caution should be used with initiation of any herbal supplements due to limited data and safety regulations.  

Drug induced liver injury may also develop with the use of milk thistle.  Milk thistle is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Check with your doctor prior to starting any herbal supplements to make sure risks and benefits are understood and acceptable.

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Julie C. Guider MyGoodGut

Medically reviewed by Julie Guider, M.D.

Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.