9 Benefits of Milk Thistle Extract

Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition
9 Benefits of Milk Thistle Extract
Like many plant-based nutrients, certain compounds keep coming back as an essential for daily health and support. Milk thistle is a medicinal plant with a long-standing history. Its use dates back hundreds of years as a vegetable, salad green, a bitter herb, and classically used as a liver tonic. Milk thistle contains two highly valuable compounds, silymarin and silibin. Researchers continue to discover supportive benefits for health, related with liver support, digestive health, diabetes, cholesterol, cancer, depression, ulcers, immune health, varicose veins, menstrual disorders, arthritis and inflammation. Milk thistle extract’s herbal properties are outright impressive.

Cancer Research

Due to a growing problem of chemotherapy resistance and cancer treatments falling short of success, researchers continue to examine several plant-based nutrients to augment cancer treatments and offer alternatives. This is the case for bladder cancer and other cancers. The International Journal of Oncology October 2017 publication evaluated silibin use in bladder cancer that had reached chemoresistance. Chemoresistance is like antibiotic resistance in that chemotherapy fails to provide benefit because the cancer is resistant to the treatment. In this study, researchers found that silibin suppressed chemoresistance and helped reduce risk of bladder cancer malignancy. It is also being studied in breast cancer treated with tamoxifen

In another search to find ways to offset chemotherapy toxicity, a 2017 cancer review study demonstrated that milk thistle or silymarin was beneficial in cancer patients. Several studies in this review article found that silymarin’s main benefits were liver protection from chemotherapy damage and guarded the skin and mucosal lining from radiation stress. Much of its beneficial effects occurred with dosage of 160-600 mg per day. A trend in chemotherapy research is to include herbal ingredients simultaneously with the chemo drug to augment its effectiveness and decrease toxicity.

Other recent information describes the effect of curcumin combined with silymarin as supportive for polyps within the colon. Polyps in the colon are associated with a high risk for colon cancer. In this case study, a 57-year-old man was found to have 54 polyps, with most ranging in size from 3-8 mm and one large 20 mm polyp in his colon found in an initial colonoscopy. He was subsequently treated with curcumin and silymarin. After nine months of treatment, it was found that the polyps had virtually disappeared with only three polyps remaining.

As cancer treatment becomes more powerful and toxic, but yet reaches a point where it is often no longer effective or tolerated, studies show that milk thistle extracts with silymarin and silibin help open a new door of success as seen with evidence-based medicine.

Candida and BioFilms

In another stubborn chronic health concern, recent research demonstrates that silymarin provides supportive immune activity against the fungus, Candida albicans. Candida overgrowth is a significant concern for gut, sinus, skin, vaginal, prostate, nail fungus and more. It creates fatigue, brain fog, rash, digestive complaints, liver distress, and more. Medical antifungal treatments are experiencing the same type of resistance to antifungal therapy as bacteria are to antibiotics.

Scientists identified that silymarin is able to penetrate the cell membrane of Candida albicans, which subsequently impacts growth of the fungus. In addition, silymarin functionally impaired biofilm development. Biofilms refer to the nearly impenetrable wall that stubborn germs hide behind and make them resistant to treatment. Silymarin proves that it is a powerful force against Candida. For many years, we have used milk thistle extract for its liver detoxification support and help with Candida toxin clearance. This research expands benefits for silymarin making it an essential nutrient to anyone’s Candida support program.


Milk thistle is used traditionally to support type 2 diabetic patients in the Middle East. A recent study on type 2 diabetics showed just how beneficial herbal support can be. Patients had fasting blood sugar levels of 150-180 mg/dL, an A1C level from 7.5 to 8.5, and were on oral blood sugar lowering medications. Patients were given the combination of herbal support (milk thistle, boswellia, and nettles) for 90 days and compared to those not treated. Hemoglobin A1C levels dropped by 19 percent to an average of 6.56, fasting blood sugar levels dropped to an average 124, and triglycerides levels also decreased on average 20 points. History shows us that herbal medicine with milk thistle and other herbs have been used for healthy blood sugar stemming back to Persian scholar records from the 800 -1100 AD.

A new cellular study published just days ago showed that silymarin provides antioxidant support to the retina and eyes when exposed to excess blood sugar. Given that diabetic complications, like blindness and kidney damage is so devastating and costly, silymarin offers natural support through diet and nutritional support.

The heart is another site of diabetic complications as seen with elevated cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and heart attacks. Advertisements and commercials bombard the public with the latest drugs to treat diabetic heart disease. Diabetic animal studies show that silymarin supports the heart from blood sugar stress. Could it be that the “weed” in your backyard that can’t be patented by drugs already provides an answer?

Immune Modulator

In yet another facet of function, silymarin is an immunomodulator or balancer of the immune system. It has been found help both activate and dampen the immune system in addition to its antioxidant properties. Studies show that it can temper autoimmune, allergic, preeclampsia, cancer, and immune-mediated liver diseases. It also suppresses oxidative and nitrosative stress harmful and inflammatory to the immune system.

Liver Support

Traditional use for milk thistle extract has been for the liver. It continues to be essential for liver concerns like daily detoxification support. Patients with chronic hepatitis supported with silymarin, vitamin E and phospholipids like phosphatidylserine and choline found functional improvement in liver enzymes. Patients given the nutrients were more readily able to return to work and had improvement in depression and anxiety that occurred as a result of the chronic hepatitis.

Silymarin helps support and protect the liver from drug-induced liver injury. Milk thistle and silymarin also helps protect the liver from obesity and fatty liver or NAFLD. It contributes to healthier metabolism in the liver allowing fat to burn for effectively. This is good news as fatty liver build-up is happening at markedly increased levels with the obesity epidemic across the globe.

Brain Inflammation, Traumatic Brain Injury, Mood, Seizures

In recent years, much information has been revealed about brain inflammation and how to protect it. Research published last month reported on brain cells that were exposed to highly inflammatory and damaging LPS toxins released by bacteria. Silibin helped modulate stress friction in microglial cell (brain’s immune cells) activity that causes neurological inflammation and neurodegeneration. These are promising results for healthy aging and protecting the brain.

Recent studies show evidence that silymarin and silibin can be used as antioxidant and supportive to the nervous system. One recent animal study compared silymarin with fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarefem) and diazepam (Valium) for anxiety and depression caused by mild traumatic brain injury. Mood changes after a brain injury are thought to occur because of inflammation and activation of microglial cells due to disruption in the nerve circuits between the limbic system (emotions, basic instincts, vital function) and the pre-frontal cortex (cognitive skills, planning, decision making, social behavior) and damage to the hippocampus (memory center) of the brain.

Silymarin provides antioxidant activities and modulated TNF-a levels in the brain and blood stream. It buffers depression and supports the hippocampus and cerebral cortex. In the mild-traumatic brain injury study with depression and anxiety, long-term silymarin use was recommended as a potential candidate for ongoing support. Silymarin was just as supportive and therapeutic as some medical treatments for mood support and neurological inflammation and could be combined with drug treatment without drug-nutrient interaction.

In a February 2018 study, silymarin provided mood support action. Rodents were subjected to chronic, unpredictable mild stress for four weeks and then evaluated on a number of different neurotransmitter and inflammatory perimeters. Silymarin buffered against stress-induced changes to the hippocampus and cerebral cortex in the mice. Neurotransmitter levels related with serotonin, norepinephrine (adrenalin), dopamine and BDNF (repair compound) had improved functional levels. Inflammatory markers and oxidative stress levels reduced while cortisol levels were rebalanced and antioxidant levels in the brain (cerebral cortex and hippocampus) improved. Silibin provided antioxidant support in the hippocampus that was stressed due to seizure activity. Impressive results!

NSAIDs Induced Ulcers

Because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities for liver and kidney health, researchers decided to see if silymarin helped support the lining of the gut and manage gut irritation caused by NSAIDs like indomethacin. Animals were given silymarin prior to NSAIDs (indomethacin) drugs treatment at a dose that damaged gut lining and caused ulcers. Pretreatment with silymarin suppressed gastric inflammation, lessened gastric damage, and decreased ulcer severity. Silymarin reversed oxidative stress and free radical induced inflammation, and restored glutathione levels that were negatively affected by NSAIDs intake.

Platelets and Clotting

Next generation clot prevention drugs are big business for the pharmaceutical industry, but there are several plant-based nutrients that help the body naturally manage whether or not platelets are sticky or slippery related to arachidonic acid challenges. Arachidonic acid is found in high amounts in the Western Diet with red meats and vegetable oils as omega-6 plant based oils (corn, canola, soy, cotton-seed, etc). Arachidonic acid is pro-inflammatory when in excess. It is problematic because it affects the COX pathway that causes blood platelets to stick together which leads to clots and higher risk of heart attacks and stroke. Silibin and milk thistle extract buffers against excess COX activity. Silibin helped keep platelets slippery, while buffering the irritation of arachidonic acid.

Skin Protection

In this last example of this herb’s benefits, we find that the skin is protected from sun stress with milk thistle. Scientists exposed skin cells to solar radiation, evaluating DNA damage and oxidative stress. Skin cells were treated with various concentrations of milk thistle and olive extract prior to solar exposure of different intensities and amounts.

Milk thistle provided antioxidant protection against cellular DNA damage, whereas olive extract helped to protect lipid cell membranes. Cellular damage and failure to repair from sun damage and UV radiation is a significant concern as it can lead to genetic mutations that trigger non-melanoma skin cancers. This November 2017 study found milk thistle and olive extract as safe, effective and support for risk reduction with non-melanoma skin cancers and sun stress to skin cells.  

No matter what aspect of health that you look at, milk thistle and its active ingredients silymarin and silibin offer several amazing benefits. Like curcumin, resveratrol, noni, pterostilbene, mangosteen, and ginger each herbal nutrient is remarkable. Because of its support for liver detoxification and antioxidants, milk thistle extract is a gold nugget essential for daily health needs. It may be a weed growing in your backyard or in the road ditch, but nature has once again provided a powerful resource that we can tap into for daily health.

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