Milk Thistle Promotes Brain and Liver Health, Detoxification & More*
Among the wide array of herbal remedies that have captured the attention of humans, a distinct violet-hued flower with spikes has been fondly called upon for its detoxifying benefits. The story of milk thistle begins long ago. Tales from hundreds and thousands of years ago report its favored use.
According to Rachelle Robinett, RH (AHG), registered herbalist, holistic health practitioner, and founder of Pharmakon Supernatural, milk thistle has been used across Europe since the 13th and 14th centuries to support liver function.* It also has a widespread and archaic history of use in traditional Indian (Ayurveda) and Chinese modalities.
But are these applications still relevant today? We have to ask: How exactly does this revered herb fit into our modern world?
What is milk thistle?
The milk thistle botanical, or Silybum marianum, is a member of the Asteraceae family, which also includes sunflowers and daisies. This plant's name comes from the white, milky sap of its crushed leaves, and it acts as a powerful antioxidant with intrinsic anti-inflammatory properties that make it beneficial to many different systems in the body.*
From the powerful, targeted support it provides to our hardworking liver to its ability to stimulate the immune system and even promote skin health—milk thistle has a slew of health benefits that can be harnessed to bolster whole-body health.*
The unique power behind this botanical is its phytonutrient silymarin (of which there are an array, so silymarins, if you will). Silymarin(s) are the active (aka bioactive) responsible for milk thistle's many benefits in the body.* Hence that botanical genus-species combination we previously mentioned: Silybum marianum.
Supplementing with this milk thistle plant extract can practically look like anything from taking a capsule to drinking milk thistle tea. As mbg's vice president of scientific affairs, Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "Silymarin will sometimes be isolated from the milk thistle seed extract to be featured in products, while other supplements will leverage native silymarins in their full spectrum, and well, glory."
Because it's an herbal remedy, milk thistle has traditionally been paired with other herbs to create complex formulas that enhance activity and efficacy, says Robinett. She shares that silymarin pairs well with licorice root, turmeric, and other herbs (depending on the intended use, of course).
Although supplements typically utilize the seed, milk thistle leaves can also be used as a digestive bitter that's helpful for supporting digestion, detoxification, elimination, longevity, and more.* Ferira adds that "milk thistle leaves and flowers can even be leveraged in your diet, acting as a vegetable on salads and other meals."
Let's get into the details of milk thistle's benefits, why it might be featured in a supplement, and whether or not this long-standing herbal remedy still adds value to our modern world.
6 benefits of milk thistle.
There's no denying that milk thistle has some unmatchable properties that ancient remedies have proven useful for quite some time. So, let's dig into the ways in which this vibrant purple beauty can support your liver, help regulate blood sugar, help maintain cognitive function, nurture skin health, and help keep your immune system in top-notch shape:*
Provides liver support.
Milk thistle's effects on the liver have perhaps made it most popular in our modern society. By acting on the free radicals produced when the liver breaks down compounds (i.e., as part of our body's natural and critical detoxification pathways), milk thistle helps protect the liver and its essential functions.*
Robinett shares that milk thistle promotes phase I liver detoxification and enhances restoration in the liver.* And its support of the "primary detox organ" doesn't stop there—liver support is important for overall health, especially hormone balance, skin challenges, and systemic homeostasis, explains Robinett.*
A 2015 review published in Antioxidants found that milk thistle's silymarin phytochemical powerhouse also supports the production of glutathione1 (aka the "master antioxidant"), which is a critically important antioxidant with significant detoxification effects.*
"Milk thistle aids in eliminating toxins that have built up in the liver, in addition to helping restore liver cells that have been affected by increased toxin exposure,"* says William Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., functional medicine practitioner. According to a review from Phytocology Research, silymarin largely supports the liver by protecting it and acting as a toxin blockage agent by inhibiting toxins from binding to liver cells.*
Speaking of toxins, some people leverage milk thistle's detoxifying actions to counteract occasional alcohol consumption.* It seems milk thistle helps our bodies process a lot of different things, and, in this world, that help is much needed. The way it helps regulate and buffer liver enzymes allows the body to better stand up to ever-present environmental toxins.*
While liver health is the primary (or famous) reason milk thistle is used, this plant also supports other systems in the body.* (And for more liver supporting tips, check out our liver supplement roundup.)
Promotes healthy kidney function.
The liver isn't the only elimination organ supported by silymarin; it promotes kidney health in some of the same ways.* For example, milk thistle helps protect kidney cells2 by promoting protein and nucleic acid synthesis.*
Helps regulate blood sugar.
Milk thistle promotes metabolic health by modulating blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity.*
The enzyme aldose reductase can cause sorbitol accumulation under conditions of high glucose concentrations in certain organs (e.g., the retina and kidneys). And as it turns out, milk thistle acts as an inhibitor of aldose reductase4 and promotes metabolic health throughout the body.*
Daily blood-sugar-balancing benefits are fair game, but those with blood sugar health concerns should speak to their health care provider to see if a milk thistle supplement would be appropriate and beneficial for their personalized needs.*
Helps maintain cognitive function.
Detox organs aren't the only systems that benefit from milk thistle—the neuroprotective qualities of silymarin also support cognitive function and overall brain health.* According to a CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics review, silymarin has powerful antioxidant properties5 that protect neurons from oxidative stress, which is key to maintaining the health and function of your brain—especially as you age.*
Nurtures skin health.
Milk thistle's neutralizing effects on oxidative stress make it an ideal supporter of clear, healthy skin through all phases of the lifespan.* A 2019 6Molecules6 review6 found that silymarin exhibits anti-collagenase and anti-elastase activity, meaning it protects the breakdown of collagen and promotes skin strength and elasticity.*
Additionally, silymarin helps buffer against the effects of full-spectrum solar radiation (aka UV rays from the sun).* Robinett shares that a tincture of the seed paired with burdock seed and omega-3 fatty acids can be used to nourish and moisturize the skin.* It's even used in some skin care products. What can't this plant do?
Immune function benefits.
According to a 2017 review from International Immunopharmacology, milk thistle has been found to have potent immunomodulatory effects—including the ability to both stimulate and7 suppress the immune system, which are both important in different situations.*
This is, in part, thanks to silymarin's capacity to both demonstrate antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that support a healthy inflammatory response at a cellular level when needed.*
The positive and multifunctional impacts milk thistle has on the body make it clear why it's been a favorite herbal remedy for so many cultures and generations. Longevity expert Sergey Young even named it one of his favorite underrated supplements (along with seaweed and garlic). That's saying something!
It's these unmatchable qualities that inspired mindbodygreen to include high-quality European milk thistle (boasting 80% total silymarin) in daily detox+—which combines five ingredients (i.e., glutathione, milk thistle, NAC, selenium, and vitamin C from acerola fruit) to support the everyday and diverse needs for detoxification in the body.*
Josey Murray is a freelance writer focused on inclusive wellness, joyful movement, mental health, and the like. A graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied English and Creative Writing, her work appears in Women’s Health, Cook & Culture, and more. By expressing her own vulnerability, she writes with warmth and empathy to help readers find self-compassion and true wellness that’s sustainable for body, mind, and planet.