With Christmas just around the corner, we're already dreaming of mulled wine and Bailey's hot chocolate. Our sore heads the morning after? Not so much.
This year, instead of fry-ups and entire Sundays spent feeling sorry for ourselves, we're reaching for the milk thistle, instead, a la registered nutritionist Jackie McCusker who told us she takes the supplement before and after a night out to ease the ‘cocktail’ load on her liver.
Part of the same plant family as the daisy, it's 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 is generally accepted that the seeds have the highest content of silymarin, a group of compounds known to exert benefits for the liver," adds Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health – an online specialist in natural health and beauty products.
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…
What are the benefits of milk thistle for the liver?
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 i s keen to remind us:
“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.
When to take milk thistle - morning or night?
Like Jackie, Shabir suggests taking milk thistle before you drink and in the run-up to party season, particularly a few days ahead of an event:
"Small studies indicate that milk thistle may protect liver cells from damage which starts to occur from the very first glass of alcohol consumed. If you are intending to take milk thistle, I would recommend taking it a few days before due to its potent protective antioxidants.
"It's perfectly safe to take on an empty stomach however it's not a culinary herb, and may cause nausea in some people, so it's a good idea to take it with or immediately after a meal."
Does milk thistle boost your immune system?
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.”
Is milk thistle good for periods?
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.”
Shabir agrees: "It does display other benefits such as working to ensure healthy, regular periods. This is down to its work on hormone pathways and may be of value for many oestrogen-dominant concerns such as irregular cycles."
Can milk thistle help acne and psoriasis?
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.
Shabir says the herb may also help people with psoriasis. "According to the principles of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), skin eruptions are often associated with improper liver function," he explains.
Side effects of milk thistle
Just because milk thistle is a natural herb, it doesn’t make it safe for everyone to take, as Henrietta highlights:
“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.