The Top 5 Milk Thistle Health Benefits

The Top 5 Milk Thistle Health Benefits

Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is a plant which grows all over the world. However, it was initially believed to be native to the southeast coast of England. From its native habitat it spread widely throughout the world, and is often considered an invasive weed. The use of milk thistle can be traced back all the way to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Milk thistle uses also extend all the way to traditional Chinese medicine and even Ayurveda. The most common milk thistle uses were to protect the liver and boost overall liver health. Modern research has backed up that milk thistle is indeed a healthy ingredient for our livers and we have been able to pinpoint the compounds in  milk thistle responsible for these effects. These compounds are:

  • Silybin (diastereoisomeric blend of Silybin A and Silybin B)
  • Isosilibin (Isosilybin A and Isosilybin)
  • Silychristine
  • Isosilychristine
  • Silydianin
  • Taxifolin
Milk Thistle Health
Chemical structure of the major constituents of silymarin. 

Silymarin in Milk Thistle

These compounds are often collectively referred to as silymarin, and have a host of different effects. Through modern research, we have now been able to determine that milk thistle is not just good for our livers, but can even help protect our brains and auditory systems! Due to the many milk thistle benefits we decided to write up a list highlighting, in our opinion, the top 5 milk thistle benefits for health.

Milk Thistle Supports Weight Loss

One of the most frequently asked questions we get is if we have anything that will produce weight loss. Unfortunately, the answer to this is always a ‘not really’, which is due to the fact that weight loss is highly multi-faceted and there aren’t really any compounds that can out-right make you lose weight. There are however a plethora of supplements that can help promote weight loss alongside a healthy diet and exercise regime. Milk thistle is one of these supplements, and milk thistle weight loss effects can be traced back to the silybin content.

Silybin appears to be able to significantly hamper the accumulation of triglycerides, which are the main component of body fat. This accumulation has been shown in highly controlled laboratory experiments to decrease triglyceride accumulation by up to 40%! Realistically, when it comes to supplementation, we likely will not see a reduction of triglyceride accumulation to such a magnitude. That being said, there does seem to be a triglyceride accumulation inhibiting effect associated with taking a  milk thistle supplement, which in combination with a healthy diet and physical exercise, can help enhance weight loss.

Milk Thistle Health
Milk Thistle Plant

Reduces Adipocyte Differentiation

Milk thistle, again through silybin, is able to induce insulin induced gene 1 (INSIG 1) and insulin induced gene 2 (INSIG 2). By inducing INSIG 1 and INSIG 2, milk thistle is able to halt the differentiation of fat cells called adipocytes. Adipocytes are specialized in storing fat, and make up what we call ‘body fat’ which is also known as adipose tissue. By inhibiting the differentiation of adipocytes, milk thistle may help minimize body fat.

Milk thistle may also help regulate glucose transport, another important factor in weight loss. Through a receptor called Glucose transporter type 4 (GLUT-4), glucose is shuttled into adipose tissue. By doing this, the potential energy from glucose is stored for us to use later. However, with over-consumption of glucose and/or over expression of GLUT-4, an abundance of glucose can be shuttled into adipose tissue. This will increase the mass of adipose tissue, which will eventually lead to an increase in body fat. Milk thistle seems to be able to reduce glucose uptake into adipose tissue by regulating the activity of GLUT-4. Through this mechanism, milk thistle could yet again help aid weight loss.

Overall, it appears that that the silybin contained in milk thistle, in particular, can be a great adjunct to a healthy diet and exercise regime. It will help enhance the effects that good diet and exercise will have on weight loss and overall health. For this reason alone, we consider milk thistle to be a highly beneficial health boosting supplement!

Milk Thistle Supports Liver Health

Most traditional milk thistle uses have been catered towards supporting liver health, which modern research has now been able to verify. Milk thistle liver detox benefits are plentiful, ranging from general protection of the liver to down right helping repair damaged livers. With this is mind, milk thistle is a great ingredient to take on a daily basis to keep our livers healthy, but is also good to take alongside substances which are not all too good for our livers, such as alcohol.

Milk Thistle Health
The Death Cap Mushroom

In terms of protection, milk thistle achieves this through a few different mechanisms. The first of which is to regulate toxins from entering and forming in our livers. There are many environmental toxins which get filtered through our livers and some of these toxins can be very damaging. An often-cited toxin which can very negatively affect our livers is phalloidin, from the death cap mushroom. Traditionally the only antidote to death cap mushroom poisoning has been milk thistle liver detox. This is due to the fact that milk thistle blocks the transport system that is responsible for shuttling phalloidin into liver cells. Of course, on a daily basis we are not exposed to death cap mushroom poisoning. That being said, milk thistle may also protect our livers from environmental toxins that are being metabolized by the liver.

Liver Toxin Regulation Support

One of the liver’s main priorities is regulating toxins in our bodies. Doing this, however, requires a lot of work by our liver, and all of this workload results in the production of oxidative free radicals. This heightened state of oxidation in our livers is usually taken care of by our bodies own molecules such as glutathione. In situations where the oxidative load is too high for our body, our livers may become overwhelmed by oxidation. Milk thistle liver benefits include providing some extra help with clearing out oxidative free radicals in these situations by boosting various systems in our livers. Milk thistle may boost levels of one of the main molecules in our bodies, reduced glutathione (GSH), while also boosting catalase, glutathione reductase (GR), and glutathione peroxidase ( activities).

Milk Thistle Health
Reduced glutathione reductase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione interact to reduce hydrogen peroxide to water, in order to protect the cell from oxidative damage.

Milk Thistle Supports Bone Health

As we age, our bones can become weaker. This is an issue that especially affects women, which is due to the fact that bone density/bone strength is highly dependent on estrogenic systems. Silymarin from milk thistle appears to be able to modulate estrogenic activity in a manner that it highly beneficial for bone strength. This effect is not limited to women and applies to men too, as estrogen also plays an important role in the physiology of male bodies and their skeletal systems. That being said, the male body is much less reliant on estrogenic functioning, which is why weakening of bones tends to occur earlier in women than it does in men.

Milk Thistle Health
The Anatomy of a Bone

It appears that through estrogen receptor beta (ER-beta), milk thistle can help pull minerals into bones. More specifically, it appears that milk thistle can significantly increase serum levels of parathyroid hormone (PTH). PTH is an important regulator of calcium and phosphate in bone metabolism. Short bursts of increased PTH can activate osteoblasts, which are cells that help synthesize bone. By activating osteoblasts through PTH, milk thistle may be able to promote bone strength. Furthermore, milk thistle may also help heal bones after injury.

Taking into account the effects of a milk thistle supplement on bone health, it may be good to take a milk thistle supplement alongside bone healthy vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D, Vitamin K and calcium in an effort to keep our bones strong. This would be beneficial for both acute bone injury, such as in a sports injury and for fortifying our bones!

Milk Thistle Supports Our Hearing

As you may have become accustomed to, we like to delve deep into research to find novel effects that some of our products may have. What many of you may not know is that many of us are also deeply passionate about music. In fact, we have a few professional musicians currently on the team! As many musicians know, hearing damage is often a very real concern as both a performer and as a listener. Discovering milk thistle’s potential to safeguard hearing from loud sounds was particularly exciting for us.

Hearing Protection: Milk Thistle

Exposure to loud sounds causes hearing damage by producing reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS). Both ROS and RNS can induce oxidative damage on the delicate cochlear hair cells inside our ears. Damage to the cochlear hair cells can produce hearing damage which in the long term will decrease the sensitivity of our auditory system. This, of course, leads to reduced hearing capabilities. Researchers concluded that delivering compounds with oxidation-regulating effects to cochlear hair cells could significantly mitigate a core process in hearing damage.

Tests demonstrated that milk thistle’s silymarin content effectively enters the cochlea, shielding cochlear hair cells from noise-induced damage through various mechanisms. One of the main ways in which milk thistle protects cochlear hair cells is by attenuating DNA oxidation, which may help protect our auditory system from loud noise induced oxidative damage. A milk thistle supplement may also help protect against lipid peroxidation that occurs during loud noise exposure.

Milk Thistle Health
The Anatomy of the Human Ear

The best way to protect our auditory system is, of course, making sure to either avoid loud noise environments or wear appropriate hearing protection. However, some hearing protection may not effectively safeguard against unexpectedly loud sounds. In this scenario, a milk thistle supplement, alongside proper hearing protection, would give a two-tiered protection from loud noise.

Milk Thistle Supports Brain Health

Just like our cochlear hair cells, our brain cells are also susceptible to oxidative damage induced by ROS. In fact, our brain has highly specialized anti-oxidant systems due to the active nature of our brains. Our brains are constantly producing ROS because of its high energy demand. Some of these ROS even originate from the neurotransmitters in our brain. For instance, dopamine metabolism can yield potent oxidative metabolites. Usually our brain has the proper defense mechanisms against these ROS. However, sometimes our brains need a little bit of extra help. Milk thistle, being a great oxidation regulating ingredient, can quite robustly protect the brain from ROS. However, there are many oxidation regulating ingredients that could exert a general neuroprotective effect. Milk thistle uniquely targets diverse brain systems to maintain overall brain health.

Dopamine Protection: Milk Thistle

As we discussed earlier, dopamine metabolism produces large amount of strong oxidative compounds. Our dopamine neurons efficiently manage this oxidative stress. However, sometimes these defenses just aren’t enough. Milk thistle can both help neutralize ROS, and it can even help protect dopaminergic neurons in a more direct way. The silybin content of milk thistle may help directly stabilize the mitochondria of dopaminergic cells. Oxidation easily affects mitochondria, the power generators of our cells. By stabilizing these mitochondria, milk thistle has a very direct neuroprotective effect, which can help keep our dopaminergic system healthy. 

Milk Thistle Health
Nitric Oxide Synthase Diagram

Neuroprotective Effects: Milk Thistle

Milk thistle may also help halt the production of inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS). Activation of iNOS causes a very large release of the gaseous neurotransmitter nitric oxide, which has a large variety of effects throughout the brain and body. Nitric oxide release around our blood vessels is often times highly desirable as it will increase blood flow. Athletes often use nitric oxide boosting supplements like L-Citrulline to enhance endurance. However, nitric oxide in the brain usually occurs alongside high amounts of oxidation. This can lead to the formation of peroxynitrite, a highly damaging oxidative compound.

By halting the production of iNOS, milk thistle may be able to decrease peroxynitrite formation in the brain, which can produce a highly neuroprotective effect. Moreover, nitric oxide amplifies inflammation in our brains. Thus, by halting iNOS production, milk thistle may help promote healthy inflammatory responses.

Milk Thistle Health
Peroxynitrite Structure

Neuroplasticity Support: Milk Thistle

Another good strategy for protecting our brains is making sure our brain is able to adapt and change. Neuroplasticity is the primary process driving adaptation and change in our brains. Neuroplasticity is dependent on a whole host of factors. Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of the main drivers behind neuroplasticity. We go into a lot of detail what BDNF is in  our blog on 7,8-DHF which we would recommend reading. BDNF binds to TrKb receptors, initiating a signaling cascade that promotes brain growth, adaptation, and change.

Reduced neuroplasticity affects cognitive function and mood negatively, making it a crucial neuroprotective mechanism in our brains. Luckily, the silybin content from a milk thistle supplement is able to enhance neuroplasticity through the BDNF/TrKb pathway. Milk thistle may enhance learning, memory, mood, and support healthy inflammatory and oxidative responses.

Also read our blog on Tryptophan

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