Milk thistle is certainly one of the lesser known supplements on the market. Milk thistle is a herb that’s been cultivated for thousands of years. Many ancient philosophers swore by the herbs liver cleansing benefits and centuries later we are learning more about its why it had such a reputation about the many health benefits milk thistle contains.
Milk thistle is related to the ragweed and daisy family. This herb is native to the Mediterranean, but can be found all over the world. In this article I will be discussing all the proven and unproven, but still possible health benefits found in this plant as well as any possible side effects associated with it.
Milk Thistle Benefits
Unlike most herbal remedies, milk thistle’s reputation for being beneficial has been built over many centuries, mainly for its ability to cleanse and protect the liver. The main compound in this herb is called silymarin, which is an antioxidant. Like most other antioxidants silymarin protects against disease causing free radicals, oxidative stress, unwanted inflammation, and much more. Silymarin differs from other antioxidants in its ability to protect the liver and help it recover from alcoholic liver disease, hepatitis, and other toxin induced liver issues.
Milk thistle might also be able to help sufferers of type 1 and 2 diabetes. Along with decreasing insulin resistance, it also lowers blood sugar levels. Some studies show a decrease in LDL or the bad cholesterol when milk thistle is combined with a healthy diet. The kidneys also benefit from added silymarin in the diet, regenerating cells and helping individuals in dialysis recover quicker. And lastly milk thistle might even help those with neurological disorders such as MS (multiple sclerosis) and Parkinson’s disease by suppressing a type of beta-protein linked to these illnesses.
Milk Thistle Side Effects
Most websites and companies selling milk thistle claim it’s extremely safe to use, with no adverse side effects at 500 mgs a day for a few years of supplementation. Most side effects arise at close to 1.5 grams a day, where it can cause loose stool, gas and bloating or hives when an allergy exists. And while these are issues most people won’t need to worry about, meaning that the positives outweight the negatives, there will be some people where these drawbacks are more noticeable. There are a few select groups that could experience certain negative effects when supplementing with milk thistle.
The first group is the bodybuilding/powerlifting community, as well as anybody trying to gain muscle and get stronger or bigger. The reasoning behind this is milk thistles ability to suppress mammalian target of rapamycin (better known as the mTOR pathway). For those who are well versed in their human biology or simply how to build muscle, mTOR is the single most important signaling complex for muscle growth. It is basically the main proponent to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and when it can’t be properly stimulated (for example with milk thistle) no muscle or strength can be built. This is good for some, as mTOR also stimulates the growth of cancer cells, especially in those more genetically susceptible to cancer. But for those trying to get bigger and stronger, milk thistle should only be used on your off days or close to 12 hours before/after a workout to be sure it isn’t interfering with muscle growth.
The other group of people who should be careful around milk thistle are women with fibroid tumors or endometriosis. This is because the herb can mimic the effects of estrogen, a hormone most women produce enough of. The same goes for women with a family history of breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. Of course this contradicts milk thistles ability to stop mTOR, which is supposed to also halt cancer production. The jury is still out on these facts and caution should be taken until we learn more about these effects associated with milk thistle. At the end of the day, if any of these side effects concern you it would be best to ask your doctor before supplementing with milk thistle.
Take Home Message
For thousands of years this herb has been used for its cleansing properties and we can take advantage of them today. So milk thistle has many benefits, from improving your immune system, to flushing toxins out of your liver and kidneys, to preventing some types of cancer, it seems milk thistle is a great addition to anybody’s supplement arsenal. Of course some precautions should be taken due to its possible estrogenic properties as well as its ability to block mTOR, effectively stopping muscle protein synthesis temporarily. Because this supplement can go either way, I’ll leave it up to you, to decide if milk thistle is for you. As I wrap up this article, I’d like to say thank you for reading up and I hope you learned something!