There are few people who use milk thistle for the traditional use of mushroom poisoning or insect stings, but millions in the western world can find particular benefit after drinking alcohol.
Milk thistle has been used in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The Greek and Roman civilizations used milk thistle extensively and almost all of their reasons focused on the organs and particularly the liver .
In this article, we will clearly outline why liver health is directly related to our mental performance and the benefits of milk thistle, which we can use to detoxify and care for our liver.
The Gut-Liver-Brain Axis
Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly come to believe that our gut (including intestinal tract, stomach, etc) has a direct impact on our cognitive performance. In a 2015 study in Annals of Gastroenterology, scientists analyzed the evidence confirming a direct line of communication between our gut and our brain .
Studies have shown that major gaps in mental performance (such as depression) can even be caused by a poor gut microbiome. In one study, scientists discovered most of our serotonin (a brain chemical associated with relaxation and a marker of social status) is actually produced in our gut even though we consider it a “brain neurochemical” .
Because the human body is a complex system, the interaction between gut and brain does not stop there. In fact, every part of the body is connected to our brain and the liver is no different.
The liver’s main function is as a detoxifying system. Our world is full of pollutants and under stress from the environment. Between all the things we cannot control (water quality, food, air quality, chemical usage), it is easy to see how our detoxifying systems would be under attack.
Numerous studies show that impairing liver function has a direct impact on our mental performance. One 2016 study in Neurology showed that fatty-liver disease (not from alcohol) contributed to lower overall performance on some cognitive tests. This study had a same size of 4,472 adults so it was large and representative of the normal population .
Another study concluded liver damage “…reveals an unexpectedly high incidence of mild cognitive impairment and psychomotor slowing in patients…” . Yet another used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan data to show the reduced cognitive function in those with liver disease .
The major takeaway is to ensure our liver is at the tip-top shape.
If we do not take the time to enhance our liver function, we might as well skip all the nootropics and smart drugs because we’re not adequately focusing on the basics.
Why is Milk Thistle the Answer?
Technically speaking, milk thistle is not THE answer. Of course, if we desire to maintain a healthy liver it is a combination of healthy lifestyle factors and strategic supplementation (such as milk thistle).
But milk thistle has been the go-to liver support for thousands of years.
Numerous studies show that milk thistle (sometimes in combination with other ingredients) can be powerful for improving liver health. For example, one study found that milk thistle and phosphatidylcholine could significantly improve liver enzymes and tissues .
Other studies have shown WHY milk thistle can be so effective for the liver: enhanced cellular protein synthesis .
This provides a host of advantages for our liver and is one reason scientists have studied milk thistle for reducing liver injury, radiation, alcohol, and a number of other issues in animals . We may extrapolate that milk thistle has a positive therapeutic effect on humans as well.
Milk Thistle: Acute vs Chronic Liver Stress
One important factor to be mindful of is that milk thistle is particularly useful as a way of diffusing acute stress to the liver rather than chronic health problems.
If you plan to have a night on the town when you know alcohol is going to be involved, this is where the milk thistle benefits will really start to kick in.
Some people decide to take milk thistle before their stressor (on the liver) and some people take this compound afterwards. According to a 2006 study in the Indian Journal of Biochemistry and Biophysics, the conclusion noted that “…preventative measures were more effective than curative treatment.” 
This is one of the ways people avoid a hangover and if you read until the end you’ll learn the dose recommendations for milk thistle supplements.
Milk Thistle Benefits: Beyond the Liver
One of the main reasons milk thistle is so useful is because it aids in liver function, which primarily allows us to detoxify our bodies more efficiently. If we do not have adequate liver function, it’s not going to be long before toxins build up and it causes harm to all parts of the body and brain.
Besides improving the function of the liver, milk thistle can also improve numerous functions in the body independently. These milk thistle benefits include things like:
- Antioxidant value
- Anti-inflammatory properties
The antioxidant value of milk thistle is measured by looking at specific biochemical signatures in our body. Scientists look for markers of biological health when people take milk thistle versus when they do not. The main pathway that is said to support antioxidant function is Nrf2 activation .
Nevermind what that means if you’re not interested in geeking out on the topic, but this evidence is helpful alongside the other scientific literature. Other studies show milk thistle activates heat shock proteins, which protect against stress . Still further evidence shows milk thistle can scavenge free radicals and chelate free iron and copper .
For anti-inflammation, there is evidence milk thistle can inhibit TNF-alpha, which is a marker of inflammation . The benefits of milk thistle for the purposes of neuroprotection are also studied with some depth.
In one study, milk thistle reduced memory damage caused by lipopolysaccharide treatment . More applicable to humans, milk thistle could extend the lifespan and reduce amyloid protein aggregation in a worm model of Alzheimer’s .
How to Use Milk Thistle
There are few (if any) side effects of milk thistle for most people. It has been used for thousands of years and has always been considered safe. Still, as modern humans synthesize and extract chemical compounds for natural sources, we often find ourselves in dangerous places.
A dose of milk thistle up to 2100 mg per day was safe and well tolerated , but that does not mean it’s useful to take such a high dose regularly.
As low as 1-200 mg per dose can be effective especially with a higher standardized silymarin (extract). For example, there is 80% silymarin in the Nature’s Way 175 mg product you can buy here.
There are many brands and milk thistle is relatively safe. Make sure you are paying attention to manufacturers that have a high reputability.
Milk Thistle Synergies and Interactions
Even though milk thistle by itself can be beneficial for the liver especially in acute stressor situations, there is evidence that there are synergistic compounds as well. Many of these are nootropics or smart drugs.
In one study, scientists discovered vitamin E and phospholipids in addition to milk thistle could be helpful for treating major liver damage . Combining antioxidants together can be helpful as well and a patent was filed suggesting a combination of bacopa monnieri, ashwagandha, curcumin (turmeric), green tea extract, and ginkgo biloba .
Whether you decide to combine milk thistle with other compounds or simply consume the supplement by itself when drinking alcohol out on the town, it can be a powerful and safe supplemental option for both liver and brain function.
Our systems in the body are complex and even though it may seem like the liver has nothing to do with our ability to perform, it is of major consequence and worth the time.
- References (Click to Expand)