The ancient Greeks already used milk thistle to treat hepatic (liver) and biliary disorders. Pliny the Elder recommended taking the juice of the plant mixed with honey to “eliminate excess bile”. In the Middle Ages, it was said that the plant could drive out “melancholy” or “black bile”, a condition associated with various diseases related to the liver. In the nineteenth century, doctors at the American eclectic school used it to treat varicose veins, menstrual disorders and congestions of the liver, gall bladder and kidneys. In Europe, we now find milk thistle in several pharmaceutical preparations for the treatment of various hepatic and biliary disorders .
Europeans also cultivated it for culinary purposes. The leaves were spinach-like (after removing the spines!), The young shoots in the manner of asparagus, the flower buds in the manner of artichokes and roasted seeds in the manner of coffee.
The milk thistle owes its name to a legend: the Virgin Mary, traveling from Egypt to Palestine, would have given birth to the child Jesus near a grove of thistles. A few drops of milk fell on the leaves, creating the characteristic white veins for this species. This legend is perhaps also at the origin of a traditional indication, the effectiveness of which has never been scientifically proven, that wants the milk thistle to promote lactation.
Research on milk thistle
The silymarin , isolated in 1968, is considered the active ingredient that provides the therapeutic effects of the plant. It is actually a mixture of substances whose main compound is silibinin. Silymarin, present throughout the plant, is particularly concentrated in mature seeds .
In most clinical trials, a standardized extract containing 70% to 80% silymarin was used . The extracts of milk thistle have been the subject of many clinical studies, including the product Legalon®, manufactured by a German company.
Liver diseases. Europeans consider that the silymarin contained in the thistle is a very effective substance to protect the liver. In classical medicine, it is used for the prevention and treatment of various liver disorders: hepatitis, cirrhosis, gallstones, jaundice (jaundice) and damage to the liver by toxic substances. In the opinion of clinicians who use it in their practice, silymarin can regenerate damaged liver tissues in addition to protecting this organ from the effects of natural toxins (fungi, snake venom, insect bites, alcohol, etc.) or synthetic (solvents, cleaning agents, medicines, etc.) 1,2.
In Europe, doctors administer, as an injection, a soluble derivative of silymarin derived from milk thistle seeds to treat amanita intoxication. This wild mushroom contains a toxic substance for the potentially fatal liver.
A multitude of medical observations and numerous trials with and without placebo report the benefits of milk thistle in case of liver disease , particularly in case of hepatitis of viral or alcoholic origin and cirrhosis 24. However, methodological weakness many of these studies (low number of participants, inaccurate patient selection criteria) and the lack of homogeneity of the protocols make it impossible to state beyond all doubt that the milk thistle is effective in preventing or treating this disease. type of disease3-5. Specialists do not officially recommend the use of the plant or silymarin; they do not oppose it either, given its safety. Since the results do not exclude an effect, several researchers point to the need for further clinical trials6,7,8.
Liver diseases. Commission E approved, in 1989, the use of the 70-80% standardized extract of silymarin to treat hepatic intoxications and as an adjunct to hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. In 2002, the World Health Organization recognized substantially the same uses.
Cancer . Researchers and clinicians are very interested in the beneficial effects of milk thistle in cancer. It would, among other things, protect the liver from the damage caused by chemotherapy9,10,26. But it also examines its potential preventive effect against prostate cancer, skin cancer and colorectal cancer10-14,27,28. It may also improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments10. For now, however, only in vitro, animal, and some preliminary clinical trials are available.
Diabetes. A clinical study was conducted in 56 patients with type 2 diabetes. The results indicate that a standardized extract of milk thistle (200 mg 3 times daily for 3 months) improves glycemic control and reduces blood sugar levels. cholesterol levels and blood triglycerides15. An earlier trial had also shown positive results in diabetic patients with cirrhosis of the liver. Treatment had reduced their insulin resistance16, but the absence of a placebo group limits the scope of these findings.
Dyspepsia. Commission E and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize the use of milk thistle seeds to treat dyspepsia. Until recently, like herbalists, classically trained physicians have generally treated dyspepsia with bitter substances such as those found in milk thistle. In Europe, this plant is part of several pharmaceutical preparations for the treatment of various digestive disorders of hepatic and biliary origin.
- Although the plant has traditionally been recommended for women to stimulate milk production, some authors believe that because of the lack of complete toxicological studies, breastfeeding and pregnant women should avoid milk thistle . However, there is no medical report indicating adverse effects in them. In addition, pregnant women participated in clinical trials without reporting any problems.
- None known.
- Very rarely, mild gastrointestinal disorders (nausea, diarrhea).
- The consumption of milk thistle could cause a reaction in people allergic to plants of the compound family (daisies, asters, chamomile, etc.).
Interactions with milk thistle
With plants or supplements
- The antidiabetic effect of silymarin may be added to that of other plants (gymnema, ginseng, momordic, for example).
- In vitro data indicate that milk thistle may modulate the activity of liver enzymes (cytochromes P450 2C9 and P450 3A4) that play an important role in the elimination of drugs by the body17,25. This effect on cytochromes can reduce or increase the concentration of a drug and thus affect its effectiveness or safety. However, according to 4 studies conducted in healthy humans, these interactions are weak and have no clinical consequences18-21.
- Diabetes. Silymarin can improve glycemic control and reduce insulin resistance . When you start a treatment that changes your blood glucose level, you have to monitor your blood sugar closely. It is also necessary to inform your doctor, so that he may, if necessary, review the dosage of conventional hypoglycaemic drugs.
Silybin mixture (silymarin) and phosphatidylcholine. Some products combine silybin, one of the flavonoids that make up silymarin, and phosphatidylcholine, a type of lipid found in bile and lecithin. The goal of this combination is to maximize the uptake of silybin, an effect that has been demonstrated in 2 clinical trials22,23.
Milk thistle properties and anti-aging effects
The main causes of aging are oxidation, toxin accumulation and inflammation.
Formerly known as a powerful antioxidant because rich in flavonoids, milk thistle can be considered as an anti-aging interesting as the resveratrol. Its action comes down to the partial neutralization of free radicals that alter the walls of our cells.