With its vivid purple flowers and sharp, spiky leaves, milk thistle seems to both beckon and push you away. But this prickly little plant is far more than an eye-catching addition to the garden – milk thistle benefits have been praised for centuries.
But what does modern medicine say about the milk thistle? And, what are some milk thistle uses? Let’s explore.
What Is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle is a flowering plant that’s native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and parts of Russia and Asia. But you might also find it growing across the Americas and South Australia.1
It can be identified by its large, vibrant, pink (or purple) flowers, and white-spotted, spiky leaves. The milk thistle also has a few aliases. So you may also hear it called “Mary thistle,” “holy thistle,” “Our Lady’s Thistle,” or even “Wild Artichoke.”2
Botanically, it’s known as Silybum marianum. The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin, which is found in the thistle’s seeds. This is the part of milk thistle that may offer potential health benefits.3
How Has Milk Thistle Been Used?
Milk thistle uses in medicine have a long history, dating back to a mention in the writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides who lived from 40-90 AD. The Romans appeared to use the plant for liver support. And milk thistle seeds were first mentioned in medicinal terms during the Middle Ages.
In the late 18th century, British herbalist Nicholas Culpepper also believed the plant was beneficial for the liver and spleen. And by the end of the 19th Century, American physicians were prescribing the herb for various medical issues.4
What Are The Potential Health Benefits Of Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle’s potential health benefits lie in its extract, or silymarin, which is taken from the seeds. It’s believed this silymarin contains natural antioxidant properties.5
These are some of the areas in which scientific studies have suggested potential benefits of milk thistle:
As you’ve just read, many ancient cultures believed in milk thistle to help support liver health – well before scientific studies even existed. Were they onto something? Clinical trials have suggested that silymarin may help support liver health by acting as an antioxidant to support the body’s natural defenses against oxidative stress – especially when paired with vitamin E6,7
Blood Sugar Levels
In one study, those who took silymarin regularly, appeared to have a notable reduction in fasting blood sugar levels.8,9
Breast Milk Production
One clinical study found that mothers taking 420 mg of silymarin over 63 days had an increase of about 86% in daily milk production with no effect on milk quality.10
Uterine fibroids are muscle tissue growths in the uterus. They’re fairly common, and some of these fibroids can grow very large. Though their cause isn’t known, it’s believed that estrogen receptors in the uterus may be what supports their growth.
However, research suggests that supporting the liver with milk thistle extract may help it to better metabolize estrogen, potentially reducing the risk of developing fibroids.11
As you get older, your bones become more fragile. This is especially true for postmenopausal women. Bone mineral density decreases naturally over time, meaning that in some people, even the smallest fall could fracture a bone.12
In limited studies, milk thistle has shown that it may help support bone mineralization – which may in turn, help keep bones stronger and more resilient.13,14
How Do I Take Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle is commonly found as a dietary supplement in the form of capsules, powders, and extracts. It can also be found as a tincture or tea.
These herbal supplements are widely available anywhere you find other herbal medicines.
Is Milk Thistle Right For Me?
According to the clinical trials conducted so far, milk thistle extract appears to be generally well tolerated by most individuals.15
As with any herb or plant, some people may have an allergic reaction. Milk thistle belongs to the same family as ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold, and daisy. So, if you have a known reaction to these plants, it may be best to avoid milk thistle. Always check with your doctor before taking any type of supplement.16,17
Again, you should always talk to your doctor before proceeding with any new medicine or supplement – including anything over the counter.