Milk thistle has been traditionally used for hundreds of years as an herbal remedy to treat liver and gall bladder problems. Scientists believe that substances in milk thistle (especially a flavonoid called “silymarin”) protect the liver from toxins.
Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it may help the liver repair itself by growing new cells.
Now, researchers at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology in Tokyo, Japan, think milk thistle may be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is characterized by progressive cognitive impairment and the formation of plaques in the brain.
The research team fed mice a powdered diet containing milk thistle for six months. They found that the mice showed a reduction in brain plaque formation and an improvement in behavioral abnormalities. The milk-thistle-treated mice also showed less anxiety. The researchers concluded that milk thistle is a promising agent for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Milk thistle has some other interesting health benefits as well. Based on traditional use, it has been used as an emergency antidote to poisoning by the death cap mushroom. One clinical trial documented a case where some beagles had ingested the poisonous mushroom.
Of the 12 dogs poisoned, four died with signs of hepatic coma. However, none of those treated with milk thistle died and the amount of liver damage was significantly reduced. Clearly, milk thistle has a unique and powerful ability to fight off certain toxins.
Most milk thistle products are standardized preparations made from the seeds of the plant. Most preparations are standardized to contain about 70% to 80% of silymarin. Like other herbal preparations, milk thistle can be taken in capsule form, as a liquid extract, or in tincture form.
Some research shows that a silymarin-phosphatidylcholine complex may be absorbed more easily than regular standardized milk thistle. Phosphatidylcholine is a key element in cell membranes. It helps silymarin attach easily to cell membranes, which may keep toxins from getting inside your liver cells.
One more bit of health advice: alcohol extracts should be avoided by anyone with alcohol-related liver disease. If you have any concerns that you may have a liver problem, you should see your doctor right away.