Are you struggling to “bounce back” after the holidays? It could be stress, it could be burning the candle at both ends, or it could be the over-indulging that so many of us enjoy in December and pay for in the new year. How can you help your body get back to better health? One way is to support your liver with the herb milk thistle.
On any given day, the liver is involved in digestion, metabolism, detoxification, storage, production, and immunity.1 It’s a very important organ! When the liver isn’t working to the best of its ability, you might experience symptoms like bloating or abdominal pain, nutrient deficiencies, issues with cholesterol or blood sugar, aggravations of PMS and menopause symptoms, skin rashes, or fatigue.2 Because the liver’s functions are so broad, the side effects of dysfunction are as well. The best way to tell if the symptoms you’re experiencing are due to your liver is through blood work. If you haven’t had blood testing done recently, ask your doctor if they can help you investigate the health of this organ.
Checking Liver Function
If your blood testing results indicate that your liver isn’t performing as well as it should, some of the most important (and basic) things to consider changing are nutrition, movement, and alcohol intake.
Milk thistle is a liver-loving herb in many naturopathic doctors’ toolkits. If you’re looking for gentle liver support, it might be the right fit for you. Milk thistle has been used for cancer care, hepatitis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s often considered for women’s general health and wellness too, as milk thistle supports liver function, blood sugar management, and lower cholesterol levels.
Fatty Liver and Hepatitis
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a condition that affects about 20 percent of Canadians.5 While it’s generally benign, over time and unaddressed, this can progress to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). In addition to excess fat in the liver, NASH presents with inflammation and scarring of the liver that can progress to cirrhosis.6 While experimental studies have shown milk thistle to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifibrotic benefits, it has yet to be demonstrated consistently in clinical trials.7 More research is required to help determine milk thistle’s appropriate dosage in people managing fatty liver and hepatitis, but this treatment has generally been shown to be highly tolerated and safe.
Blood Sugar and Cholesterol
Blood sugar and cholesterol management are very common concerns. People are often looking for alternatives to get things under control so they might avoid prescription medications. In a 2018 clinical trial, participants with type 2 diabetes who received 140 mg of silymarin (from milk thistle) three times a day, demonstrated significant decreases in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). This group also showed improvements in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and insulin sensitivity.
Milk thistle has been researched for its estrogenic (promoting estrogen production and activity in the body) effects on women’s health. In one clinical trial, menopausal women treated with this herb reported a decrease in the frequency and severity of hot flashes they had been suffering with.
Another Interesting Application
A 2021 clinical trial found that a milk thistle ointment applied to the perineum after episiotomy (a procedure sometimes required during labor and delivery) improved healing time and decreased the severity of pain experienced by women.11
Given the research available today, milk thistle has its great- est influence on patients with cholesterol and blood sugar management issues, while showing some interesting potential for women’s health and cancer care. How beneficial it is for those struggling with fatty liver remains to be seen; but given its safety profile, it may still be a good consideration for general liver health.
An important point to clarify is that although supplements can help with detoxification, it’s your liver that is always doing that job—supplements or not. Your liver is always working.12 How efficiently it’s working depends on a combination of genetics, age, and overall health. The first step is to see your healthcare provider check on how your liver is working, which will require blood testing and possibly an abdominal ultrasound. It can then be decided whether milk thistle is the right fit for you and your health goals.