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Nutrition

Can milk thistle really help you to stay healthy during party season?

November 28th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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It’s known for its liver supporting, hangover easing rep but it can also have a lesser known impact on conditions such as endometriosis. Here’s what a milk thistle supplement might be good for (and what it’s not)

Registered nutritionist Jackie McCusker recently told us that she takes a milk thistle supplement before and after a night out to ease the ‘cocktail’ load on her liver, and she’s not alone - milk thistle has been known as the ‘hangover herb’ for hundreds of years. Particularly revered for its ‘best supporting role’ in facilitating liver function, it comes to the pharmacy fore during silly season, when many of us are holding out for a hero to help us deal with post work do fatigue, nausea and fuzzy heads.

In case you’re envisaging chomping on a thorny shrub the morning after, you’ll be reassured to know that milk thistle, which is part of the same plant family as the daisy, is most commonly available in capsule or tincture form, although you can also sprinkle milk thistle seeds over food to benefit from its main antioxidant player, the compound silymarin. It’s this plant active that’s been most thoroughly studied and is in the main responsible for milk thistle’s glowing stature as a natural hangover soother, among other roles. That said, as a major disclaimer, milk thistle will not undo the effects of copious sambuca shots, resultant misjudged karaoke sessions or general social/ professional clangers brought about by beginning a night out at 3:30pm with booze supplied by your boss. But you knew that anyway. Where it could help, however, is with the following…

Helping your liver to process alcohol

As above, this isn’t a licence to drink prosecco by the litre, but milk thistle has been shown to help in the protection and repair of liver tissue, as nutritionist Gabriela Peacock affirms:

“Milk thistle enhances antioxidant activity in the body and has been shown to have a protective, regenerative effect on liver cells. Alcohol in particular puts a strain on these cells, so milk thistle can help to minimise damage and allow cells to function better.”

Milk thistle’s anti-inflammatory properties could also help to negate some of the free-radical damage associated with alcohol and help the liver to metabolise toxins, but as far as so-called detoxing goes, your body is already equipped to break down alcohol over time. A milk thistle supplement is just that, a supplement, not a miracle sponge to soak up last night’s booze, as the British Dietetic Association is keen to remind us:

“The body has numerous organs, such as the skin, gut, liver and kidney, that continually ‘detoxify’ the body from head to toe by responding to signals, in the form of hormones, to remove any waste products.

“There are no pills or specific drinks, patches or lotions that can do a magic job. If you have over-indulged on alcohol, for example, the liver works hard to break down the alcohol into products it can remove. It sounds predictable, but for the vast majority of people, a sensible diet and regular physical activity really are the only ways to properly maintain and maximise your health. Not smoking, drinking less alcohol, getting enough sleep, fresh air and exercise will also help you feel healthier and more energised.”

In essence, milk thistle could help to assist your liver in the breakdown of alcohol and enhance cell function but it’s no substitute for healthy living or a sensible, moderate approach to alcohol intake. Boring but true.

Enhancing immunity

Milk thistle handily starts making headlines around cold season as well as during the run of office parties, and for good reason according to nutritional therapist and founder of Wild Nutrition Henrietta Norton:

“Milk thistle is often seen as the post-party herb or one just for regular drinkers. While this can hold true, milk thistle also works to help the body clear unwanted chemicals that we come into contact with all the time from living in a modern world. Milk thistle is able to increase the level of one of the body's most powerful antioxidants, glutathione. Glutathione protects us (inside and out) from cellular damage, working to repair our system from the damage caused by pollution, infection, stress and inflammation.”

Hormonal balance

Henrietta underlines that milk thistle is an especially helpful herb where women’s hormonal health is concerned:

“Women particularly can benefit from milk thistle for its ability to work on hormone clearance in the liver and to aid with the metabolism of fats - which is important for not only weight management but to help our body break down and absorb beneficial fats such as essential omega 3s.”

If you suffer from a hormonal conditions such as endometriosis, milk thistle could provide a little symptomatic relief here too:

“As an oestrogen-driven condition, women with endometriosis have a greater need to make sure their body is able to clear excessive or unwanted levels of oestrogen. If they have problems doing this, this may lead to worsening of the condition and symptoms such as inflammation, fatigue, an irregular menstrual cycle, heavy menstruation and pain. Milk thistle works to support the 'clearance' of oestrogen through the detoxification system - providing antioxidant and digestive support too. Women with endometriosis may experience a compromised immune system and therefore they will also benefit from a herb like milk thistle that encourages the production of the immune-supporting antioxidant glutathione.”

Milk thistle’s anti-oestrogenic effects have also been associated with helping to prevent post-menopausal bone loss and potentially remineralizing bone to reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis, but further human studies are required to verify this effect.

Calming acne and inflammatory skin conditions

Owing to its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, it has been suggested that milk thistle can help to ease inflammation associated with skin diseases such as acne, with one study showing that acne sufferers taking 210g of milk thistle’s active compound silymarin saw a 53 per cent reduction in acne lesions over an eight week period. Further studies are required, but it’s this calming action that led aromatherapist Annee de Mamiel to include milk thistle in her balancing Spring Facial Oil, £80 for 20ml:

“I like milk thistle’s ability to soothe and moisturise especially sensitive or acneic skin. The active constituents in milk thistle seed include silymarin, which is actually a group of three flavonoids rich in antioxidant benefits that to help protect skin from environmental stressors. Combining milk thistle with vitamin E and essential fatty acids, including linoleic acid, also aids in balancing the skin’s natural moisture barrier.”

As part of a seasonal ‘defence’ plan

Gabriela attests that there’s no one herb or nutrient that can supercharge your liver - staying well during party season in a holistic endeavour in which milk thistle can help, but you can also support its action by ensuring that you include lots of other liver supporting factors in your diet such essential fatty acids and healthy fats, plenty of plant phytochemicals as found in dark leafy vegetables and strongly coloured fruit and veg (think blueberries and aubergines) alongside mood and metabolism regulating minerals such as magnesium.

Gabriela also stresses that it’s not a hangover cure in itself - it's most effective when taken preventatively, and you needn’t splurge on a milk thistle supplement all year round. If you know that you’re likely to drink more during the winter months, for example, you could add milk thistle to your diet for six weeks for additional support. If you’re wondering how to go about that, don’t buy any old herb going - here’s what to look out for in a supplement, how to identify if you’re getting the real deal and why milk thistle isn’t for everyone.

How to take milk thistle

First off, it sounds basic, but ensure that what you’re actually taking is bonafide milk thistle. In an episode of the BBC’s Trust Me I’m a Doctor, Dr Chris Van Tulleken and researchers from University College London’s School of Pharmacy found that 36 per cent of milk thistle products on the market contained no detectable milk thistle and in one case a supposed milk thistle supplement came laced with “unidentified adulterants.” Worrying, to say the least, and the team emphasised that even expensive supplements came up short during the testing process. To ensure that your milk thistle is genuine and safe, the doctors recommended only buying products with a ‘traditional herbal registration’ mark (THR), which means that the supplement has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and that the herbs have been traditionally used in the UK for at least 30 years. You can check whether your milk thistle supplement is registered on the MHRA website.

Also, just because milk thistle is a natural herb doesn’t make it safe for everyone to take, as Henrietta highlights:

“With all herbs it is important to seek medical advice if you are on prescription medication. Milk thistle can increase the speed at which a medication passes through the body and can interact with some forms of medication although this is dose dependant and for some people, a smaller dose is both more effective and safer than a larger one. It can still be used with some medication but do check with a professional first and it should be taken two hours or more away from any medication (if deemed suitable in the first place).”

Gabriella agrees that milk thistle can have potent effects in both good and bad ways, so it’s always best to consult your doctor before taking it, especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic or suffering from liver disease. Otherwise it’s considered a low-risk supplement when taken correctly, with studies showing that incidences of adverse reactions and side-effects are minimal (an estimated one per cent of those taking it will experience these). Just whatever you do, as with any supplement, don’t buy a knock off milk thistle tincture on the Internet. At the least it won’t help your hangover and the worst case scenario is that it could damage your health. Play it safe before you milk it…

Why you shouldn’t take paracetamol on a hangover (and what to do instead)

Follow Anna on Instagram @annyhunter, Gabriella @gabrielapeacock and Henrietta @wildnutritionltd

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