The Spartan Guide to Milk Thistle
The Claim Native to the Mediterranean region, milk thistle is flowering herb related to plants in the ragweed and daisy families. It can be taken in supplements or as a tea to ease liver problems (such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, and gallbladder disorders) and to lower blood sugar in diabetes patients.
The Evidence Silymarin, the compound that gives milk thistle its medicinal prowess, functions as both an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Still, its effect on the body isn’t totally understood. Some emerging research hints that milk thistle improves liver function in patients with alcohol-related liver disease, but other studies show no such effect. And a few studies indicate that milk thistle may help people who suffer from liver damage stemming from exposure to industrial toxins (such as toluene and xylene), but again, the science just isn’t complete.
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Still, integrative doctors regularly use milk thistle with good anecdotal results. “Milk thistle is a liver-supportive herb, so we use it most often in cases of liver inflammation, like transient or viral hepatitis or other liver disorders and diseases,” says Darcy McConnell, M.D., a functional medicine physician at the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York. “It also has glucose-lowering effects, so it’s useful in diabetes.” Again, the research exists, but it’s not unequivocal yet; studies suggest that milk thistle, in combination with traditional treatment, lowers blood sugar and improves cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
How to Use It Most studies focus on 200 to 800 milligrams per day, often split up into two or three dosages. “Though generally considered to be safe and without side effects, milk thistle can interact with certain medications and should be used with caution in patients taking prescriptions,” Dr. McConnell warns. If you have a ragweed allergy, you should also steer clear; milk thistle can cause a rash or a more severe reactions.
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