Some people are moving towards more natural ways of addressing certain health conditions, taking herbal supplements in place of or on top of other medicines and treatments. One herbal supplement that is gaining popularity is milk thistle.

The touted benefits of milk thistle are primarily related to liver conditions; in fact, it’s the number one herbal supplement for liver problems in the U.S., according to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). But it is purported to help treat other ailments as well. Read on to find out more about this herb and whether it is something you could benefit from.

Milk Thistle Uses, Benefits, and Effects

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle comes from the same family as the daisy and is scientifically known as silybum marianum. It’s an herb with prickly purple flowers that have white veins, which folk tales attribute to a drop of the Virgin Mary’s milk falling onto the plant. Because of this, it’s also called Mary thistle or holy thistle.

According to the NCCIH, the plant is native to southern Europe, southern Russia, Asia Minor, and northern Africa but also grows in America and South Australia. The supposed source of its powers is the main active ingredient called silymarin. You can get milk thistle products in capsule, powder, extract, or tea form.

Benefits of Milk Thistle

Current studies related to milk thistle or silymarin (the two terms are often used interchangeably) are inconclusive and sometimes contradictory. While some studies suggest that milk thistle is beneficial to health, these are usually done on a small scale or on animal test subjects. Large-scale studies as well as studies on humans need to be done for its effects to be proven.

That being said, the following are the potential health benefits of milk thistle, based on existing studies:

May protect liver. Milk thistle is most commonly used for liver conditions such as cirrhosis (liver damage usually due to alcohol), jaundice (typically a buildup of a chemical called bilirubin that manifests in a yellowish complexion), and hepatitis (a liver infection). Silymarin is thought to act as an antioxidant that helps protect the liver from damage courtesy of harmful free radicals.

Given that studies are still inconclusive, it’s best to use milk thistle as an additional treatment on top of other treatments you may be getting for existing liver conditions, and not as a primary or sole treatment. Also keep in mind that milk thistle doesn’t keep you from developing said liver conditions, which means you shouldn’t consider it insurance against the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.

May help manage diabetes. Milk thistle has been reported to lower blood sugar and, based on a study published in Pharmaceutical Biology, may reduce insulin resistance in mice. More research and human trials need to be done to prove its efficacy. Talk to your physician if you’re thinking of using a milk thistle supplement to help manage an existing condition.

May help protect against cancer. Cancer Research UK summarizes some of the findings of early studies on milk thistle and cancer thus: The compounds in the herb may help some chemotherapy drugs work better against ovarian and breast cancer cells; may directly destroy prostate, breast, and cervical cancer cells; and may slow down prostate cancer cell growth. Other studies on animal cancers suggest that the herb may block tumors and reduce cancer cell growth.

May increase milk production. This one is for the new moms who are on the lookout for galactagogues, or foods that increase milk production in lactating women. Milk thistle may join the ranks of malunggay and fenugreek as breastmilk boosters.

As with other supposed benefits of milk thistle, this one needs more research but one study showed that moms taking silymarin increased milk production by 64% compared to those who took a placebo.

Of course, as with any other supplement you take when breastfeeding, consult your doctor beforehand and make sure you’re consuming a healthy diet to keep up with the demands of milk production.

May improve skin. So far, testing of milk thistle as a treatment for skin conditions has only been done on mice and on human cells in a laboratory but the possible effects of milk thistle on skin can give those with acne some hope. Milk thistle seems to have anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects that may help clear up acne and give skin a more youthful appearance.

Possible Side Effects of Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is generally well tolerated but you might want to avoid it if you’re allergic to similar plants, like ragweed, chrysanthemums, daisies, and marigolds. It may also cause some gastrointestinal discomfort such as diarrhea and nausea.

Make sure to consult with your physician if you’re considering adding milk thistle to your treatments if you have an existing condition; also run it by your doc if you’re pregnant or lactating.

You can find milk thistle in the Philippines at Healthy Options.