Should all Athletes Take Milk Thistle for Liver Health?

Milk Thistle Supplement

One doesn’t need to look very long online to find a plethora of natural remedies that aim to help your body perform to the best of its ability. You can find a natural supplement for virtually every organ in your body, some remedies more reputable than others.

However, one of the most reputable natural remedies on the market is milk thistle, a plant that, for hundreds of years, has been used to strengthen the liver. Milk thistle is a plant that belongs to the daisy family, and once was native to the Mediterranean, but now can be found all over the globe.

Taking milk thistle is a common suggestion for athletes. If you are unsure of the effects that milk thistle has, don’t worry. This article aims to explain the effects of milk thistle by compiling the scientific literature available about this plant and then explain them in simple terms.

How Milk Thistle Works

The health benefits of milk thistle largely come from the fruit of the plant. The milk thistle fruit contains Silymarin which is a standardized prepared extract comprised of multiple flavonolignans such as silybin, silychristin, and silydianin, to name a few. [1]

Silymarin possesses strong antioxidant properties. Here are just some of the effects: [2]

  • Reduces free radical production in the liver
  • Reduces lipid peroxidation
  • Possesses antifibrotic activity
  • Potentially acts as a “toxic blockade agent”

It is important to note that many articles may use the terms ‘milk thistle’ and ‘silymarin’ interchangeably. Despite this, it is important to differentiate the two as milk thistle is the plant from which the active ingredient of Silymarin is extracted.

Benefits of Milk Thistle With Regard to Liver Health

Milk Thistle Liver Health

As stated above, milk thistle has primarily been used over the years to improve the health of the liver. There have been quite a few studies conducted on milk thistle, and on silymarin in particular, and many show promising results.

Keep in mind, however,that many studies below state that more research is needed to learn the definitive benefits of milk thistle


A 2017 study was conducted on mice to see if the plant could help combat Cholestasis, a condition that is caused by oxidative stress which affects the flow of bile in the liver and can result in hepatic cell death, cirrosis, fibrosis, and liver failure.

The results showed that milk thistle was beneficial in helping combat Cholestasis as milk thistle extract demonstrated anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative effects in the livers of the treated mice. [5]

Improved Liver Damage and Insulin Resistance

Milk Thistle Supplement

A study in 2016 aimed to see if Silymarin could help improve diet-induced liver damage and insulin resistance. During the study, 6 male mice were fed a high fat diet, then treated with 60 mg/kg silymarin for 18 days. Food intake during this period was unaltered.

The results were promising. Silymarin was shown to reduce the epididymal fat mass from 1.75g to 1.25 as well as decreased the histological damage in the mice livers caused by the high-fat diet.

When the cytokine levels of the mice were examined, they showed that Silymarin significantly lowered inflammation. [6]

However, more testing is needed to see if these effects also occur in humans.

Liver Diseases

The primary uses of milk thistle over the last several decades has been to help liver diseases. The extract has undergone numerous small studies to study the effects of Silymarin on alcohol induced liver disease, hepatitis, and more.

In 2018, a study was conducted to see if Silibinin, a constituent of Silymarin, could help against the Hepatitis B virus as the virus is a worldwide health problem and is known to cause liver cirrhosis.

The study aimed to see if Silibinin could prevent Hepatitis B from entering liver cells. The results demonstrated that the flavonolignan inhibited HBV entry into liver cells [7].

Another study showed that milk thistle dietary supplements may help with treating Hepatitis C. When Silymarin supplements were tested against Hepatitis C, the researchers found that there was a positive correlation between the levels of Silymarin in the supplement and the anti-oxidant and anti-viral properties of said supplement. [8]

Alcohol Related Diseases

There is plenty of documentation showing that Silymarin can help against liver cirrhosis. One study found that Silymarin contributed to a significant decrease in liver-related mortalities, but an insignificant effect on total mortalities. [9]

A 2016 study tested HBV transgenic mice by  to determine the effects of lamivudine and Silymarin on their livers.  The mice were fed 0.5g/kg worth of alcohol. The researchers discovered that the combination of the two compounds was able to relieve the histological damage on the alcoholic livers. [10]

Other Benefits

Benefits of Milk Thistle

We have established that milk thistle does have many beneficial properties for the liver. However, there is research suggesting that milk thistle may have other benefits for your general health.

A 2015 study suggests that milk thistle may be beneficial for your skin and for inflammatory skin diseases in particular. When tested on mouse skin cells, Silibinin showed promising results, suggesting that it might be a potent anti-inflammatory agent. [11]

In 2013, a laboratory experiment found that Silymarin could possess powerful antioxidant and anti-aging properties beneficial for your skin. The researchers found that Silymarin inhibited free radicals in human skin cells. [12]

There also have been multiple studies that suggest milk thistle could help with diabetes. A study on mice showed that milk thistle extract could help with insulin resistance as well as lower cholesterol. More research is needed, however, to see if this benefit applies to humans. [13]

Suggested Doses

In our research, we found that there are quite a few suppliers and articles that suggest conflicting dosage amounts of Silymarin. Due to this fact, it is highly recommended that you make sure that, if you decide to take milk thistle, you buy the supplement from a reputable vendor.

This said, there is research that suggests the use of 420-600 mg of Silymarin that has been extracted from milk thistle standardized to 80%  for liver disease or for otherwise impaired liver function. Research also states that you should begin to see results in eight to twelve weeks. [3]

You also can ground 12-15g of milk thistle dried fruit and ingest it or incorporate it into a drink, such as tea, but this has not been shown to have the same therapeutic effect.

There does not seem to be any recommended dosage differences between men and women.

Side Effects

While Silymarin is generally well tolerated by adults who take the supplement, possibly due to its poor absorption orally, Silymarin is not without its side effects. Some of these side effects may include: [4]

  • Diarrhea
  • Skin reactions
  • Headaches

Users of Silymarin may also experience other rare side effects such as severe allergies to the substance or even anaphylaxis. [4]

As always, it is recommended that you consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before you start taking a new supplement.

Final Word on Milk Thistle Benefits

Overall, milk thistle has been shown to be very beneficial for the liver and perhaps to general health. However, more definitive and large scale research is needed to learn the definitive benefits of milk thistle for humans.

These benefits aren’t just for alcoholics and those suffering from liver disease; milk thistle will also help athletes who wish to ensure that their liver is healthy.  Milk thistle, with its antioxidant properties, is a great deterrent against disease other adverse liver conditions.

Before using milk thistle for treatment, you should check with your doctor or healthcare provider first, especially if you are taking medications, to ensure that there will be no adverse effects.

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