Does Milk Thistle Benefit Weight Loss?
Milk Thistle's Other Names
Milk thistle is an herb with the botanical name silybum marianum. Milk thistle or silybum marianum is also known as mary thistle, holy thistle, lady's thistle or marian thistle. It's active constituents are well known for their hepatoprotective, or liver protecting effects3,4,8,9 as well as being known to help the liver in its work of detoxification5. It is considered in Germany to be an herb worthy of inclusion in its medicinal monographs6 and milk thistle is well known as a helper for liver problems, hepatitis, cirrhosis, jaundice and gall bladder issues. Even the heart may benefit indirectly by lowering or normalizing cholesterol (having cholesterol too low may be more of a danger to health than having it too high, some research has shown.)
Few herbs besides milk thistle and artichoke leaf are known to regenerate the liver.
This page will explore studies and even experience that may show whether milk thistle may help in your weight loss plans.
Is There Research that Milk Thistle May Benefit Weight Loss?
There is actually a patent for a combination of milk thistle or silymarin/silybum, plus a mushroom plus an herbal carrier with the goal of helping the liver better metabolize fat and carbohydrates. They believe that they have created a unique solution for obesity and weight loss and combine milk thistle with a variety of schisandra and lycium1.
The patent was fascinating as they considered many substances - like milk thistle - that were known to be protective for the liver. Other such substances that they reviewed before deciding on milk thistle included, artichoke, andrographis, artemisia, astragalus, barberry, bupleurum, boldo, dong quai, fo-ti (I love fo-ti and take it daily to help my hair grow full and less grey!), fringe tree, licorice, phyllanthus, picrorrhiza, kudzu, guggul, gotu kola, dandelion, prickly pear, rehmannia, skullcap, scisandra, turmeric and combinations of the above.1
They claimed to have created these combos because they considered what is already on the market:
- Thermogenic drugs like ephedrine and caffeine
- Fat burners like chromium picolinate & l-carnitine
- Lipogenesis inhibitors like garcinia cambogia
- Natural appetite suppressants like DLPA and l-glutamine
- Bulking agents to provide satiety like psyllium, guar gum and glucomannan
But they have found as selectively effective as these may be, they are still not accepted as universally the best safe and sustained weight reduction methods1. This is why they created a formula that they believed could meet this goal. This post is not to promote this product - keep reading as we explore more research and even experience in using milk thistle for weight loss.
Yo-Yo Dieting May be Caused by This - Milk Thistle May Help!
In Crinnion's Book, Clean, Green & Lean: Get Rid of the Toxins that Make You Fat he talks about toxins in our environment and he says that the reason we struggle so much with losing weight has to do with how the body gets rid of the fat1. When a body decides it needs to release fat, it causes the problem of releasing the toxins that may have been stored in those fat cells.
Ewww! You say I'm toxic? I'm not saying that! But the reality is that our environment has 80,000 chemicals - and most have not been tested. We are seeing more and more people having issues with the chemicals in our environment, so it may be wise to learn more on how to avoid chemicals or at least how to detoxify them!
Crinnion says that the release of chemicals when body fat is burned off is what causes us to regain weight so quickly. It is actually a protective mechanism. A way for protecting our body from the chemicals that have been released that it is unable to fully detoxify. The body simply stores them in fat to avoid dealing with them.
Losing weight releases the trapped toxins - then shuts down weight loss to protect the body from those toxins!
Because Milk Thistle helps not only to protect the liver, but to help in the process of detoxification, it makes sense that milk thistle may benefit some in the process of weight loss.
It makes sense, but is there research? Let's consider that!
What Does Milk Thistle Do?
Milk thistle contains silymarin that is a known anti-inflammatory and acts as an antioxidant. With my clients and family I recommend milk thistle for those who have any sort of liver stress - including our beloved dogs!. My dad takes it daily (and has for thirty years) because he likes his beer. I take it daily because I understand that it protects the liver and can actually help to regenerate it. I also am a huge fan of this herb for anyone who needs to clear hormones from the body.
When you think about all the things the liver does for the body, you will become more interested in how milk thistle may benefit you. The liver breaks down fats (sounds like that might be helpful for fat loss!) The liver processes carbohydrates and the liver processes proteins. The liver detoxifies heavy metals and toxins from our environment. That means, everything we eat, everything we drink and even things we might absorb through our skin or in our water has to go through the liver.
The liver then has two stages of detoxification. In the first stage it makes the toxin or hormone it needs to eliminate into a water-soluble product to allow excretion through the kidneys - our normal channels of urinary excretion. In the second stage of liver detoxification, the chemical or toxin is made less bioavailable so that it is not reabsorbed into the body to cause more problems. This article shows the nutrients needed for this process to work properly - and it actually shows milk thistle as a necessary nutrient for liver detoxification11!
Milk thistle is in the polypheonol family. It is technically a polyphenolic flavanoid. It is one of the nutrients that can protect us from UV damage. It also encourages apoptosis of cancer cells. Silymarin protects the mitochondria by encouraging normal cellular function at the mitochondrial level and thus it can be helpful in liver regeneration as well as many lifestyle diseases that are shown to have a root in mitochondrial damage like diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD)10. Enhancing detoxification pathways is silymarin’s specialty - to the point where one research article calls silymarin a necessary nutrient for the process of liver detoxification11.
Silymarin is a critical nutrient to detoxify the highly toxic secondary metabolites that can be created in phase I liver detoxification before phase II Liver detoxification. Liver detox happens in stages. The goal is to make a metabolite water soluble (so it can be excreted through the kidneys) and less bioavailable (so it is less likely to have the toxin be reabsorbed into the body11.) Some of the middle metabolites may be more toxic than the original ones that the body had to deal with - this is where silymarin's protection is especially helpful.
As mentioned earlier, milk thistle is best known for its hepatoprotective, or liver protecting effects3,4,8,9 and for helping the liver detoxify5. A recent study shows it may be helpful to reduce transaminase from people with Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)12
What is the Most Effective Way to Take Milk Thistle to Benefit Weight Loss?
Silymarin or milk thistle extract in a capsule is one of the best ways to take milk thistle for weight loss - especially if it is made from organic milk thistle.
Morning, noon / lunch time or evening is not as important in taking milk thistle as taking it on an empty stomach is. My stomach is rarely empty, so I find it helpful to take milk thistle a half an hour before meals with a glass of room temperature water.
Experiment with a capsule before one meal a day, increase to two and then to three times per day. I have found that the effect is quite subtle, but I seem to feel better on the 3x/d program - listen to your body!
Milk thistle helps detoxify as fat is burned as well as helping the liver to do its job of metabolizing fats and carbohydrates as well as detoxifying better - I have seen it be a powerful adjunct to other weight loss plans (such as what is suggested in this video series on how to improve your liver function)- especially keto!
For a free ebook on keto, be sure to sign up for my newsletter! Included in the first email is the SLIM! Keto Reset ebook. It gives a simple explanation of what keto is, how and why it makes sense and how to implement it.
Is Milk Thistle Good For You?
I got my dad started on milk thistle almost thirty years ago. He still drinks "a few" beers daily and at 78 may still be in great health at least partially from milk thistle's hepatoprotective properties. That is one of the reasons I am convinced of its value.
Another, more convincing proof is seeing that milk thistle is actually considered an essential nutrient in the process of liver detoxification in figure 2 of Reference 11.
My favorite way to Enhance Milk Thistle's Effectiveness
The article on the patent - and their logic in creating this combination fascinated me. They believe that when dieters begin to lose weight, the hormone ghrelin (I remember this by, "Grrrr... give me food!") elevates along with the level of hunger.
This ghrelin hormone is believed to by why so many dieters reach a plateau that slows or stops weight loss for awhile. The researchers believe that their combo helps to sustain weight reduction by suppressing hunger and allowing the body to continue the weight reduction.
Over the years, effective satiety occurs for me when I eat enough healthy fat to feel full. Milk Thistle works with this protocol, as I have found it seems to get me back on track by helping my body remembering how to keep losing weight.
With the lockdowns I found I was eating more carbs than I was used to. For the last few years I have applied the system in the SLIM! Ketogenic Reset to keep my weight down after some mid-life body changes started giving me my first "spare tire". It may sound counter-intuitive to eat fat to allow the body to lose body fat, but there is much science behind helping the liver to do its work as a method of sustained weight loss. It worked well, I never felt hungry (unless I chose to fast) but then covid.
Eating those extra carbs seemed to make my body begin to gain weight again. When I got tired of that and started cutting back on sugars again I became frustrated that the weight wasn't falling off as easily as every other time. As I got back on track with my diet, not much was changing in my tummy... it seemed my body liked its new set point - but I didn't!
Milk Thistle Seed Tea for Slimming Down
So I started drinking milk thistle seeds made into a decoction (a tea boiled for ten minutes. I used 1Tbsp Organic Milk Thistle Seeds per quart of water.) and within a week began noticing a slimmer body! (For full discloser, I also stopped eating after 7pm, so that may have helped too.)
What is funny about this is some research says you have to use the milk thistle in an extract to get results and maybe I would have gotten more results or faster results that way, but the liquid tea worked well for me to get my body back into weight loss mode!
What Damages the Liver, Making Milk Thistle Needed in the First Place?
Another source for liver damage is found in bad oils. Staying away from sugars and bad oils is the first step in protecting the liver. Milk Thistle is another protective measure that is not only protective and can help the liver to regenerate, there is some research that the active constituent in milk thistle, silymarin is critical in helping the liver do its job of detoxification.
Milk Thistle and It's potential to Increase Antioxidants
More than that, milk thistle has been shown in vitro to encourage critical antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase (SOD)7 and in one animal study milk thistle was shown to increase intracellular levels of glutathione by as much as 50%7. Glutathione is a critical antioxidant that is not thought to be stable in supplement form, so nutrients like N-Acetyl-Cysteine (N-A-C) and milk thistle that can increase antioxidant levels may be very helpful in preventing the diseases that come from oxidative effects.
Milk Thistle Cautions for Diabetics or Those taking Drugs
Milk thistle is known to help normalize blood sugar by improving insulin resistance, so is thought to be a help for type 2 diabetes, diabetes, cirrhosis and psoriasis.
If you plan to take milk thistle and you are taking diabetes medicine, know that the big concern is that you my need less medication. Like other blood sugar-lowering herbs, be sure to test your sugar levels as having them too low may be dangerous. If you already are testing your blood sugar regularly and monitor your levels, adjusting doses, you may see healthy benefit with milk thistle as I have seen with many people.
I don't consider milk thistle as the strongest herb for reducing blood sugar and results may vary, but know that milk thistle can be an important adjunct when you are taking any drug as drugs are known to damage the liver.
Be sure to talk to your integrative medicine Doctor if you are taking cytochrome p450 substrate drugs and avoid grapefruit as both can decrease liver detoxification and increase the effect the drug may have on the body.
Milk Thistle and Allergies to Pollen from the Asteraceae Family
Because the medicinal part of milk thistle is considered the fruit or seeds, it is not likely that even with an asteraceae allergy that you will have a problem with it, but listen to your body and consult with your doctor if you have questions.
Students Learn about Milk Thistle in the Medicinal Herbs module of High School Health Class!
Milk thistle is very thistle-y. You may be hoping it is not in your backyard! But I do a module on medicinal herbs and other useful plants that you might find in your backyard in my High School Health Class! If you are homeschooling and would like the best health class for your high schooler, I can get you referrals from moms who have loved what this class has taught their children. Nearly every student has attended because of a friend's testimonial!
Don't let your student miss out! For more information on all my classes, go to: SoCalGardenHealth.Teachable.com
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1.) Crinnion, Dr. Walter Clean, Green & Lean: Get Rid of the Toxins that Make You Fat
3.) Palasicano G, Portinasca P, Palmieri V, et al. The effect of silymarin on plasma levels of malondialdehyde in patients receiving long-term treatment with psychotropic drugs. Current Therapy Research 1994;55:537-545
4.) Hikino H, Kiso Y Wagner H, Fiebig M. Antihepatotoxic actions of flavonolignans from Silybum marianum fruits. Planta Med 1984;50:248-250
6.) Blumenthal M, Busse W, Goldberg A, et al, eds. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998:169-170
7.) Muzes G, Deak G, Lang I, et al. Effect of the bioflavonoid silymarin on the in vitro activity and expression of superoxide dismutase (SOD) enzyme. Acta Physiol Hung 1991;78:3-9
8.) Valenzuela A, Aspillaga M, Vial S, Guerra R. Silymarin protection against hepatic lipid peroxidation induced by acute ethanol intoxication in the rat. Biochem Pharmacol 1985;34:2209-2212
9.) DiMario FR, Farni L, Okolicsanyi L, Naccarato R. The effects of silymarin on the liver function parameters of patients with alcohol-induced liver disease: a double-blind study. In: De Ritis F, Csomos G, Bratz R, eds. Der Toxish-metabolische Leberschaden. Lubeck, Germany: Hans Verl-Kontor; 1981:54-58.
10.) Li L-H, Wu L-J, Jiang Y-Y, Tashiro S-I, Onodera S, Uchiumi F, et al. Silymarin enhanced cytotoxic effect of anti-Fas agonistic antibody CH11 on A375-S2 cells. Journal of Asian Natural Products Research [Internet]. 2007 Oct [cited 2020 Oct 24];9(7):593–602. Available from: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=awh&AN=27216929&site=ehost-live.
11.) Liska, DeAnn J, PhD, The Detoxification Enzyme Systems