In our increasingly polluted lifestyles, alcohol and drugs are not the only toxins that end up in our bloodstreams: we also have to worry about what’s in the air around us and in the food intended to nourish us. The liver is the organ charged with “cleaning” the blood and detoxifying the body, so liver health is no doubt vital. Increasingly, herbal supplement enthusiasts are turning to milk thistle and its extract silymarin for an herbal product that will assist the liver with its critical metabolic functions. Milk thistle is a flowering plant, related to the common daisy, that produces the potent extract silymarin. While research results vary, most studies have shown silymarin extracted from milk thistle to have positive effects on liver health and digestive functioning.
About the Milk Thistle Plant
Due to its hardiness, milk thistle grows all over the world, both as a native plant and an introduced plant. Its genus comprises two species, and the variety used in liver health is the Silybum marianum. Although the flower of the milk thistle can be a lovely pink, magenta, or purple, the vital silymarin extract is produced from the fruit of the plant – specifically the seed (which is not normally eaten, in case you’re wondering).
Milk Thistle’s Effects on the Liver
First, Silymarin has antioxidant qualities, meaning that it prevents important substances from oxiding by pre-emptively oxiding. In other words, chemicals in the liver can continue to perform their necessary functions because the antioxidant oxidized first. Consider milk thistle extract, then, to be a sort of herbal martyr, helping to protect liver cell membranes. Silymarin is also an anti-inflammatory substance – hence the use for hepatits patients. The net effect of milk thistle on the liver is one of purification and detoxification. The silymarin frees and stimulates the liver’s functions while protecting its cells.
Because the liver produces bile, which is excreted to aid digestion, milk thistle functions indirectly as a gentle laxative by removing barriers to effective bile production. Bile aids digestive flow by lubricating the intestinal walls and the substances passing through. Ancient peoples discovered this mild laxative quality, and herbal remedy afficianados often combine dandelion root with milk thistle for digestive health.
Proponents have also suggested that milk thistle’s extract helps keep skin clear and may play a role in preventing skin cancer, though these claims are relatively unsubstantiated when compared to the more medically accepted liver benefits.
Buying Milk Thistle / Silymarin
Once extracted from the Milk Thistle’s seeds through an alcohol process, the silymarin can be combined with geltin and water into a recognizable caplet form. Milk thistle is available over the counter at most drug stores, including Walgreens and other major chains. Capsules vary in strength, but most have between 175 and 250 mg of silymarin. If your local drug store does not carry milk thistle, it is readily available online at countless herbal stores.
Milk Thistle Tea
If you prefer to ingest your herbals through tea, it is possible to combine milk thistle extract with water. However, because of its low solubility in water, silymarin cannot be infused through conventional means. Some specialty stores, such as www.livingpharm.com, sell a harder-to-find liquid extract that can be added in drops to hot water to create milk thistle tea. Happy detoxification!
[Final Note: remember to consult your physician before taking any herbal supplements.]