(NaturalHealth365) With its spiky purple flowers and dull green leaves, milk thistle may appear to be nothing more than an ordinary weed growing wild in vacant lots and fields. Yet, when it comes to fighting disease and promoting healing, this unimpressive-looking plant is truly a shining star.
Milk thistle, scientifically known as Silybum marianum, is prized by natural healers for its ability to treat liver ailments – including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, currently reaching epidemic proportions in the United States.
But supporting liver health is not milk thistle’s only gift. Discover how this extraordinary herb can help you.
Milk thistle protects against toxic effects from cancer treatment, arrests tumors
The active ingredient in milk thistle, an antioxidant flavonoid known as silymarin, reduces the inflammation and oxidative damage that can trigger cancer. In addition, it helps to preserve glutathione, the body’s premier inflammation-fighting antioxidant.
Scientists have known for some time that milk thistle may act against cancer. In a review conducted in 2007 at the University of Minnesota, researchers cited “strong evidence” for silymarin’s liver-protective and anti-cancer effects. Significantly, they credited silymarin with combating cancer by inhibiting the binding of toxins to cell membrane receptors.
In a new study published in The International Journal of Oncology, researchers found that silibinin, a form of silymarin, suppressed chemoresistance – in which cancer fails to respond to the effects of drugs.
The team noted that silibinin also prevented further malignancy, protected against potentially cancer-causing DNA mutations and inhibited tumor growth.
In other research, researchers found that silymarin also helps to prevent liver damage from chemotherapy, while protecting skin and mucosal lining from damage from radiation therapy.
Milk thistle is a potent antifungal agent
Overgrowth of Candida albicans, a common fungus, can cause symptoms of fatigue, “brain fog,” digestive problems and skin rashes. And, a growing problem of drug resistance in pharmaceutical antifungals – which parallels the current epidemic of antibiotic resistance – can make Candida difficult to treat.
Researchers have found that silymarin can penetrate the cell membrane of the Candida microbe, stopping the growth and spread of the pathogen and helping to clear the overgrowth.
Silymarin is also effective in blocking and inhibiting biofilms, layered communities of pathogenic microorganisms that are stubbornly resistant to treatment.
Silymarin helps to regulate glucose levels
For the past thousand years, herbal and Ayurvedic healers have been advising milk thistle to treat diabetes – and modern research confirms the value of this ancient remedy.
In one recent study, a 90-day course of a combination of milk thistle, boswellia and nettles slashed hemoglobin A1c levels – a measure of blood sugar over several months – by a substantial 19 percent.
The herbal combination also drastically reduced blood sugar levels – from an average of 150 to 180 mg/dL down to an average of 124 mg/dL – and reduced triglyceride levels as well.
In addition, a just-published cell study shows that silymarin protects the retina from diabetic damage – a common consequence of the disease.
The Big NEWS: Milk thistle treats a range of liver diseases
Milk thistle’s main claim to fame, of course, is its ability to improve liver enzymes, rebuild liver cells and alleviate liver ailments. In addition to easing hepatitis and cirrhosis, milk thistle shows promise in treating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and halting the progression to steatohepatitis, a more serious form of the condition.
Research has supported milk thistle’s beneficial effects on liver disease, with one study showing that hepatitis patients treated with silymarin returned to work sooner, and experienced less depression and anxiety, than those in the control group.
In addition, milk thistle helps to detoxify the liver and to protect against injury from heavy metals and drugs.
In a review published in Phytotherapy Research, the team credited silymarin with reducing liver injury caused by an array of toxins, drugs and heavy metals – including acetaminophen, carbon tetrachloride, radiation, alcohol, iron overload and Amanita phalloides, a type of poisonous mushroom.
(Bonus: milk thistle’s protective effects extend to the stomach, as well. The herb has been shown to suppress gastric inflammation and protect against ulcers caused by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Surprising fact: Milk thistle has antidepressant properties
Yet another surprising benefit of milk thistle is its ability to function as a natural mood elevator.
Animal studies support its ability to reduce anxiety and depression caused by traumatic brain injury, which it appears to do by reducing activity of microglial cells caused by disturbance in the neural circuits between the limbic system and the cortex of the brain.
In one study, silymarin performed as well as the pharmaceutical drugs fluoxetine (Prozac) and diazepam (Valium) in supporting mood.
Researchers noted that silymarin reversed stress-induced changes to the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, while boosting levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Because of silymarin’s ability to reduce inflammation and neurodegeneration, researchers are even exploring its potential to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
How should I take milk thistle?
For detoxification, experts recommend temporary short-term dosages of 150 mg, taken one to three times a day. For liver support, maintenance and longer-term use, an integrative healthcare provider may recommend dosages in the area of 50 to 150 mg a day. For best results, use a formulation standardized to 70 to 80 percent silymarin.
As always, consult with your doctor to determine if milk thistle is right for you, and to arrive at a proper dosage. Milk thistle is generally considered safe and is well tolerated – but can cause mild digestive upset in high doses.
(Note: if you are allergic to any member of the aster family – such as daisies, ragweed, marigolds or chrysanthemums – don’t take milk thistle).
Milk thistle has long been revered for its ability to cleanse and detoxify the liver. But recent research confirming its ability to treat other diseases demonstrates that this herb is both valuable and versatile.
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Sources for this article include:
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