If you’re living with diabetes, or suffering from heart, liver or gallbladder conditions, milk thistle might just help boost your health.
Milk thistle is a flowering Mediterranean herb that comes from the daisy and ragweed family, which has traditionally been used for liver and gallbladder treatment. It’s named for the white veins on its leaves—no dairy is actually involved. Thanks to its silymarin content, an antioxidant, it appears to benefit the body in various ways.
Here’s why you should consider adding milk thistle to your supplement regime.
Silymarin is thought to be the active ingredient in milk thistle. This is extracted from the plant’s seeds and made into supplement form, whether in a tablet, capsule or liquid form. According to this study, “Silymarin has cytoprotection activities due to its antioxidant activity and radical scavenging…silymarin can be served as a novel medication in complementary medicine.”
As you may know, antioxidants fight against oxidative stress, which occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals can damage tissues and DNA, leading to serious conditions and premature aging. Including plenty of antioxidants like silymarin in your diet is one key to maintaining balance and warding off disease.
What can milk thistle do?
Currently, the research on milk thistle isn’t conclusive. While milk thistle looks like a promising supplement for liver and heart conditions, as well as diabetes, more research is needed before we can definitively promise results.
The current research shows that milk thistle is a complementary treatment, meaning that it won’t solve your health issues on its own. For example, when you treat your type 2 diabetes with traditional medicine, taking a milk thistle supplement can decrease blood sugar levels and improve cholesterol levels. Milk thistle also improves insulin resistance, which contributes significantly to type 2 diabetes.
Milk thistle also appears to have positive effects on the liver, preventing damage. It may help treat cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis, by preventing toxins from attaching themselves to the liver. In fact, it may help treat people whose liver has been damaged by industrial toxins like xylene and toluene. These compounds are poisonous when inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, and they’re found in many household products.
Some people swear that milk thistle helps prevent hangovers after a night of drinking. While there is no current research to definitively rule on that claim, it does appear to ward off damage from chronic alcohol abuse—but don’t take that as carte blanche. Always drink in moderation, if you drink at all.
Milk thistle also appears to lower LDL cholesterol levels, the “bad” type of cholesterol. In turn, that could help lower your risk of developing heart disease. However, it’s important to note that the heart benefits have only been studied in people with diabetes. There’s no conclusive evidence as to whether it will help those without diabetes. Milk thistle can be taken alongside your cholesterol-lowering medications, including statins, and works to prevent the elevation of liver enzymes.
How to get milk thistle in your diet
Milk thistle leaves and stems can be eaten in salads, but otherwise, there are no other food sources. Instead, you can opt for a supplement, which typically come in capsule, tablet and liquid form.
Keep in mind that milk thistle is not FDA regulated, nor are there recommended dosages to treat diabetes, heart or liver conditions. Each supplement may have different doses of milk thistle, so be sure to read the supplement facts carefully.
If you have any of the above conditions, talk to your doctor about milk thistle. They will be able to recommend an appropriate dosage, or warn you away from adding it to your diet.
Milk thistle isn’t right for everyone. First, it can trigger allergic reactions, especially if you’re allergic to ragweed, daisies, marigolds, chrysanthemums, artichokes or kiwi. You should also be wary if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, since its effects on those conditions is unknown.
The majority of people can take milk thistle without experiencing side effects, but some will experience nausea, bloating, diarrhea and itching.
Finally, milk thistle may interact with your prescription drugs. Again, talk to your doctor if you regularly take prescription drugs, especially drugs for infections, blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and insomnia. Milk thistle may lower blood sugar, so diabetics must be especially careful to ensure their blood sugar doesn’t fall too low.
The bottom line
In the end, milk thistle is a promising supplement that may help people—especially people with type 2 diabetes—regulate a number of conditions. Talk to your doctor about whether this herbal supplement is right for you.