Milk Thistle: Everything You Need To Know

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Did you know that milk thistle, which is named for the sap that comes out of its leaves when they are broken, is one of the oldest health remedies we know of today? In fact, the use of this plant's fruits and seeds can be traced back over 2,000 years to ancient Greece and Rome, when it was used to treat liver ailments and snake bites. Milk thistle, which is also known by the names Mary thistle, holy thistle and silymarin, was also a common treatment for the liver during the Middle Ages. Today, physicians continue to recommend milk thistle for a number of conditions, including gallstones, jaundice and liver problems. This article will explain the many uses of milk thistle as well as where it can be found and how much you should be consuming each day.

What Does Milk Thistle Do?

Although milk thistle has been used for centuries, it wasn't until 1968 that scientists discovered that the active ingredient in the plant was silymarin, a plant-based substance found in milk thistle seeds. This helped them to determine exactly which conditions milk thistle is useful for treating. One of the key characteristics of silymarin is that it has antioxidant effects. It is also a popular treatment of heartburn, gallbladder problems, uterine issues and spleen diseases. Additionally, milk thistle is often used to treat diabetes, hangovers, malaria, depression and loss of appetite.

Milk thistle is often used for the treatment of liver disorders, including chronic inflammatory liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic hepatitis. Although the use of milk thistle to treat these conditions seems to be helpful, there is no conclusive evidence that it is effective for treating liver disorders. There are also studies being completed to find out if milk thistle is effective for slowing the growth of cancer cells in the cervix, prostate or breast. At this point, milk thistle has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not been approved as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition. It is, however, approved as a dietary supplement and is generally regarded as a helpful treatment for the health conditions noted above.

Food Sources of Potassium

Since milk thistle is a plant, it can be used as a food itself. Often, the leaves and flowers are included in salads and other dishes as a vegetable. Often, it can be used as a substitute for spinach. Furthermore, the seeds can be roasted and used as a substitute for coffee.

More commonly, people take milk thistle in supplement form. The seeds are usually utilized more than the plant leaves and flowers of the milk thistle plant in order to make these supplements. Milk thistles can be prepared as capsules, extracts, tinctures or powders.

Side Effects

When taken in the recommended doses, side effects of milk thistle are extremely rare. In some cases, those taking milk thistle may experience minor gastrointestinal problems, such as bloating, intestinal gas, indigestion, nausea or diarrhea. Because milk thistle is a plant, some people may be allergic to it. People who are allergic to plants like ragweed, marigolds and daisies - which are in the same family - are more likely to be allergic to milk thistle.

Furthermore, because milk thistle may lower blood sugar levels, it's important for people who are diabetic, hypoglycemic or taking medications that affect their blood sugar levels to talk to their doctors about taking milk thistle. Milk thistle also has some plant extracts that may act like estrogen in the body, so it's critical that any person suffering from a condition which may be worsened by exposure to estrogen avoid taking these milk thistle extracts. These conditions may include breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer endometriosis or uterine fibroids. It should also be noted that milk thistle seed extracts do not act like estrogen in the body.

Deficiency Symptoms

Because milk thistle is not required as part of a daily diet, there are no known deficiency symptoms.

Daily Dosage Recommendations

Milk thistle is not an essential substance that necessarily needs to be taken every day. The recommended daily intake of milk thistle is largely dependent on what health condition it is being used to treat. For example, diabetics are usually advised to take about 200 milligrams of silymarin three times each day, in addition to their other daily treatments for the disease. For an upset stomach, a physician might prescribe a milk thistle mixture that also contains other herbs to be taken in a dose of 1 milliliter three times per day. Because the effects of milk thistle on a fetus are not known, some expectant women are advised to stop taking milk thistle while pregnant or breastfeeding. For more information about whether you should take milk thistle and in what amount you should be taking it, consult your physician.

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