Milk Thistle: Boosting Your Liver Function The Natural Way

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“Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver” – William James

The liver is thought of as the ‘seat of anger’, housing our darkest emotions, which is why liver problems are associated with resistance to change, fear, anger, and hatred. But regardless of its symbolical meaning, one thing is certain: if you have a sluggish liver, you are feeling miserable.

You can think of a sluggish liver as a subclinical liver dysfunction brought on by a lifetime of eating the Standard American Diet (SAD!) and/or too much toxicity. Even though genetics play a role and anyone with a liver disease can have a sluggish liver, for the first time in our evolutionary history we are being exposed to unprecedented levels of toxicity and we are consuming the highest intake ever of carbohydrates (sugar), both of which strain our livers to the max.

The body eliminates hazardous toxins – heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, and microbes – by neutralizing them or by excreting them through the urine, feces, lungs (breathing), and skin (sweat). Toxins that the body is unable to eliminate accumulate in the tissues, typically in our fat cells.

The liver is the detoxification organ par excellence and the body’s ability to eliminate toxins largely determines its health. Many diseases, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other chronic age-related conditions, are linked to a sluggish detoxifcation system.

The liver detoxifies toxins through two main phases.

Phase I detoxifcation enzymes are known as cytochrome P450. It is made up of 50–100 enzymes that neutralize toxic chemicals by transforming them into a less toxic form. Chemicals that can’t be neutralized are changed into an intermediate form. Unfortunately, many of these intermediate forms are more toxic and potentially more damaging than the original toxin. Also, as the phase I enzymes neutralize toxins, they produce inflammatory free radicals. If there aren’t enough antioxidants (i.e. gluthatione, vitamins, etc) to deal with these free radicals, our health becomes compromised.

Phase II detoxifies toxins that the phase I enzymes turned into intermediate form by attaching chemicals to the structures. This process is called conjugation and it neutralizes toxins, making them more likely to be excreted through urination or defecation. A malfunctioning phase II detoxification system can cause all sorts of chronic illnesses. Some examples of conjugation includes glutathione conjugation, methylation and amino-acid conjugation. Low-protein diets and a lack of digestive enzymes inhibit this process because they don’t provide enough raw materials for conjugation.
The liver also plays an essential role in hormonal balance, the immune system, digestion, protein synthesis, cellular nutrition and many other functions. This explains why a person with a sluggish liver can have a variety of symptoms:

– Irregular or heavy menstruations.
– PMS symptoms, including breast soreness and sensitivity, depression, hypoglycemia and irritability.
– Mood instability and irrational anger and temper flare-ups (“what am I, chopped liver?!”).
– Nausea, dietary fat intolerance, foul smelling gas, swollen belly, loss of appetite, constipation and diarrhea.
– Aching joints and muscles, sore feet.
– Psoriasis and other skin problems, hair loss, and slow wound-healing.
– Headaches, insomnia, difficulty awakening, poor memory, and difficulty concentrating.
– Strange or opposite reactions to drugs, multiple chemical sentivities and multiple allergies, asthma, hives and eczema.
– Chronic fatigue syndrome, depression.
Fortunately, there is a natural and effective way to boost our liver function.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a flowering plant of the daisy family native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, which has been used since Greco-Roman times as a herbal remedy for many diseases, particularly liver problems. Supplements are a standardized preparation of 70 to 80% silibinin, silychristin, and silydianin, collectively known as silymarin. This concentration is required because silymarin is poorly absorbed (20–50%) from our digestive tract.

The silymarin complex, particularly the silibinin component of milk thistle, protects the liver in a direct and indirect way. It protects the liver from free-radical damage. It prevents certain toxins from entering liver cells and even neutralizes toxins that have already penetrated the liver. It is able to regenerate liver cells that have been injured, prevent fibrosis and prevent fatty liver.

Over 30 years ago, intensive research on the liver-protecting properties of milk thistle began in Germany where it was approved for the treatment of alcohol-induced liver disease and other diseases of the liver.

Milk thistle treatment can be effective even several hours after initial poisoning occurs. It can also prevent the damage caused by certain drugs such as acetaminophen, antidepressants, antipsychotic, cholesterol-lowering and anticonvulsive drugs.

Silymarin can raise  glutathione levels in liver cells by as much as 50%. Glutathione is the most important liver-protecting antioxidant, becoming depleted if we are exposed to high levels of toxins on a daily basis. Silymarin also increases the activity of another antioxidant known as supraoxide dismutase (SOD).

Other than the liver, milk thistle has been shown to be protective for our kidneys and brains against toxins, free-radical damage and inflammation.

There are no known contraindications or interactions with other drugs for milk thistle and the only occasional side effect is a mild laxative effect. No restrictions during pregnancy and lactation are known.

The normal dosage is 420 mg in three divided doses (80% silymarin content) daily.

Dr. Gaby’s Recommended Sluggish Liver Protocol

  • Milk thistle 140mg (with 80% silymarin) three times a day
  • Alpha lipoic acid 100mg twice per day
  • Vitamin E 800 IU per day
  • Vitamin C 4-6 g/day
  • Magnesium 400-1200 mg/ up to bowel tolerance (cut out one dose until diarrhea disappears)
  • Digestive enzymes
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  1. mhikl  January 26, 2014

    Milk thistle is dear to my heart. My last dog’s liver was heavily infected with a rare deadly cancer- the whole liver showed up as white and the biopsy showed the liver ‘boiling over’ with cancer. For animals there are few if any anti-pain medications but the milk thistle seemed to help and Moh lived almost five months after diagnose. I rue the fact that I did not know how bad kibble (low cal kibble had been prescribed by the Vet) is to a canine’s health. Now my dog is on milk thistle and the BARF diet (Biologically Approved Raw Foods) and I have added vitamin C, as noted for dogs in another article on your great site. Sadie is a year away from the age I received the news of my Moh’s illness.

    Your article on Milk thistle is the best I have come across on the web.

    Namaste and care,

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  January 27, 2014

      I’m glad it was helpful. Milk thistle is surely a must have. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Shannon  August 6, 2014

    Does it matter if the milk thistle is in liquid form or capsules/tabs?

  3. JM  December 2, 2014

    How long can you stay on milk thistle….I been having problems with my liver…it is sluggish…have been on it for awhile but there has been no change….

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  December 2, 2014

      For as long as you need it, however, I would do some detective work to address possible root causes. Check out “Primal Body, Primal Mind” by Nora Gedgaudas for some ideas. Also, “Detoxify or Die” by Sherry Rogers.

  4. Faith  January 9, 2015

    Great article. Very well written. Can you please elaborate on what changes one can see after going on 80% silymarin milk thistle? short term and long term, such as changes in urine…

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  January 10, 2015

      This depends on each individual, in general none report changes in color, although some do actually report urinating more frequently at the beginning. Best!

  5. Laura  March 18, 2015

    Will Milk Thistle help if you have been diagnosed with Non-alchoholic Fatty Liver Disease?

  6. Debbie  July 8, 2016

    I have a high ferritin of 216 and was told to take milk thistle. I followed the instructions on the bottle which said 2 in morning and 2 in evening they were 600 mg each! 2 months later my hair has been falling out big time and I am so depressed. I also have Hashimotos what did I do to myself?? How do I get my hair to stop falling in these large amounts it has been going on for 4 weeks now and I stopped the milk thistle :((

  7. Greg  October 4, 2016

    Dear Dr. Gabriela Segura,

    I have been prescribed Milk Thistle by my Dr., as I have some symptoms of a congested liver and some heavy metal buildup but when taking it, I experience more fatigue, sore feet and the other article symptoms listed above than I do when not taking it. I experience the same symptoms, sore feet, fatigue and brain fog when taking NAC. My laymen’s view of this is that I may be cleansing my body of something that is stored in my body but is being liberated via the use of these cleansing supplements. Additionally, I should say that I am Hypothyroid and when taking and Thyroid meds, I experience an increase in the same symptoms listed including sore feet, fatigue and brain fog. The same thing happens with taking ALA.
    Any thoughts on a course of action.
    Thanks Greg

  8. Julie  August 22, 2017

    Hello Gabriella, thank you for an interesting read. I started taking Flora Milk Thistle Plus 3 days ago, 2 a day. I noticed I’ve been urinating quite a lot. Is that a normal reaction?

    • Dee  December 27, 2017

      Hey Julie, I’ve been noticing that too it’s like the 4th day and I’ve only took 175mg caps once a day to begin with. I realized my urine is more clear then before and smells stronger than usual.

  9. Cathy G  July 4, 2019

    I need help my doc told me to take milk thistle for my fatty liver . i have started taking it two days ago and i am urinating like crazy it that normal ??? Also im scared to eat just worried if im getting enough of what ever vitimins or fattys i need pls help

    • Gabriela Segura, MD  July 4, 2019

      That sounds like a normal diuretic effect, you must be retaining a lot of water. For fatty liver, a low carb diet is highly efficient.


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