Milk Thistle for Longevity and Lifting Weights

It's Not Just for Bloated, Steroidal Livers

Milk Thistle

I recently added the ancient medicinal plant, milk thistle, to my drug/supplement regimen because it contains silymarin, a powerful polyphenol.

This wasn't a decision I made lightly. Take a look at the list of things I'm currently taking and maybe you'll understand why:

  • Aspirin – 80 mg. twice a day for cardiovascular health, anti-skin cancer, and anti-colon cancer effects.
  • Testosterone cypionate – 60 mg., twice a week for anti-aging and pro-sexual effects.
  • Metformin – 500 mg. twice a day for anti-aging, anti-cancer effects.
  • Magnesium – 500 mg. twice a day because it plays a role in approximately 300 enzymatic reactions in the body.
  • I-Well™ – 3 capsules a day (includes vitamin D3, EGCG, beta-glucan, and micellar curcumin) for fortification of the immune system.
  • P-Well™ – 3 capsules a day (includes punicalagin, lycopene, purified cranberry) for prostate health.
  • Flameout® – 3 capsules a day for anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Micellar Curcumin™ – 1 capsule a day for anti-inflammatory effects as well as overall general health effects.
  • Creatine – 5 grams a day for bodybuilding purposes as well as health purposes.
  • CoQ10 – 100 mg. once a day for mitochondrial health.
  • Vitamin K – 2600 mcg. once a day for preventing arterial calcifications.
  • Vitamin B12 – 1000 mcg. once a day to prevent deficiencies caused by concurrent use of metformin.
  • Dutasteride – .01 mg. 5 days a week to maintain my head of hair and for additional protection against prostate cancer.
  • Collagen – 5-10 grams twice a day for joint and skin health.
  • Glycine – 500 mg. twice a day to enhance the effects of collagen.
  • Psyllium – 5 grams twice a day for gut health, cholesterol reduction, and general health.
  • Indigo-3G® (cyanidin 3-glucoside) – 6 capsules a day for increased insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning.
  • Superfood – 2 scoops a day for general health.
  • Cacao – 5 grams a day for cardiovascular health.
  • Niacin – 500 mg. twice a day to maintain healthy blood vessels and for pro-sexual effects.
  • Rez-V™ – 3 capsules once a day for anti-estrogen properties and general health.

And that doesn't even include the protein and workout supplement I use. The point is, I use a lot of stuff, and I furrow my brow a long time before I add anything else to the list. I mean, at a certain point, it can get ridiculous. And yeah, I'm talking about you, futurist Ray Kurzweil, who reportedly takes upwards of 150 pills or capsules a day.

Given the length and breadth of my list, I generally need some compelling evidence before adding anything else to it, but the research behind milk thistle and its active ingredient, silymarin, convinced me.

Milk Thistle? Are You Doing a Cycle or Something?

A lot of athletes have heard about milk thistle or its active ingredient, silymarin, but only in the context of "cycle support."

For steroids to be taken orally, they're chemically altered to include a "17-alpha-alkylation" modification. The trouble is, this modification makes the liver work a lot longer and harder to process the steroids, thus causing the organ undue stress and damage.

Milk thistle, however, has long been touted to be a liver protectant so steroid-heads almost always use it in conjunction with their cycles.

It's a sound practice, and there's plenty of evidence to support that the supplement keeps the liver rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, despite whatever chemical assault it's subjected to. However, milk thistle has recently been found to have a lot of other superpowers, including physique and performance enhancement.

What Other Powers Does Milk Thistle Extract Have?

Physique and Performance Enhancement

In truth, there haven't been a lot of studies on the use of milk thistle or silymarin on physique or performance enhancement, and a lot of what's been done has been done on rats. This, in itself, isn't damning because milk thistle/silymarin has been used for hundreds of years by herbalists and healers, and it's just a fact of research-life that newer and brighter and shinier things usually get more attention from the scientific community.

Still, what's there is intriguing:

Fat Burning

Milk thistle appears to increase the rate at which the body burns body fat during exercise while sparing muscle glycogen (Choi, 2016). A separate study involving 45 men that were divided into groups – some doing endurance training and some doing weight training – found that the combo of exercise and silymarin improved body comp, probably through positive effects on adipokinectin levels (Shirali, 2016).

Muscle Growth

Silymarin from milk thistle led to increased recovery and hypertrophy of quadriceps and gastrocnemius muscles (through increased protein synthesis) in rats, along with improvements in endurance and the muscular tissue of the heart (Vargas-Mendoza, 2020).

Increased Athletic Performance

Milk thistle extract increased alveolar and bronchial muscle size, improved vascularization, and reduced tissue inflammation in exercising rats, leading to improved cell recovery and improved exercise performance (Vargas-Mendoza, 2021).

Increased Recovery

Silymarin from milk thistle reduced aerobic-exercise induced inflammatory markers in exercising men (Moein, 2018.)

General Health and Disease Fightin' Stuff

Liver Protection

This is probably the area where milk thistle/silymarin shines the brightest. It's important because everything you ingest eventually winds up passing through the liver. That includes xenobiotics like drugs, pesticides, food colorings, industrial chemicals, cosmetics, fragrances, and pollutants, as well as your momma's lasagna and anything else you count as food.

It's no wonder this often-abused organ can end up feeling and acting like a punch-drunk fighter, but instead of listening to it implore, "Cut me, Mick, I can't see nothin'," you can give it milk thistle/silymarin.

The compound has repeatedly shown promise in inhibiting T-cell proliferation and the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. High doses have controlled liver inflammation in those with chronic liver disease. It's been shown to protect the liver against all kinds of toxic industrial chemicals. It reduces the deposition of the collagen fibers, usually seen as a result of cirrhosis.

While the mechanisms are uncertain, milk thistle/silymarin works overtime in free radical scavenging and raising the levels of glutathione, which leads to the inhibition of lipid peroxidation.

Prevention and Treatment of Cancers

Cancer is one sneaky, clever bastard. In what seems like a trope lifted from some vampire space alien movie, cancerous tumors actually coax the body into forming new blood vessels that attach to the tumor and feed it. It's called angiogenesis, and milk thistle/silymarin has been found to have anti-angiogenic properties against skin, breast, ovarian, lung, prostate, cervical, bladder, colon, and liver cancers. Kudos to milk thistle for this service.

Nervous System Fortification

Brains in general are characterized by high oxygen use, lots of polyunsaturated fats, elevated levels of free iron ions, and low antioxidant defenses. All of this makes the brain vulnerable to reactive oxygen species, but milk thistle/silymarin vigorously protects oxidation in the hippocampus and cortex of old rats in comparison with younger ones. This strategy may also provide some early protection against Alzheimer's disease.

Additionally, milk thistle/silymarin has shown some promise as a neurotropic as it's been found to elevate the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Dermatological Effects

Forget your fancy skin emollients formulated from fetal lamb scrotum; milk thistle/silymarin has shown to protect against skin cancer (Berardesca, 2008), as well as treat aging skin and rosacea. It also exhibits antiglycation activity (Chambers 2017), which is what ultimately leads to skin looking like an old catcher's mitt.

Pancreas Protection

It's clear milk thistle/silymarin has a soft spot in its heart for the liver, but it seems to like the pancreas almost as well. As with the liver, the compound protects the pancreas against various toxic agents. It also helps restore proper endocrine function and pancreatic morphology in diabetic models. In other words, it increases serum insulin, reduces blood sugar, and elevates levels of various antioxidant enzymes beneficial to the pancreas.

How Bioavailable is the Stuff?

Milk thistle/silymarin only has a bioavailability of 20 to 50%. That may sound bad, but it's not, especially if you compare it to some other supplements, which, if they're not jazzed up with a fancy delivery system, only have an absorption rate of about 1%.

Nope, 20 to 50% bioavailability is perfectly adequate, so ordinary, unenhanced milk thistle/silymarin products will do you just fine.

How Much Do I Take?

The good news is that you don't need to take protein-scoop-sized helpings of milk thistle/silymarin to benefit from it. The studies that found the compound to the use of fat and triglycerides during exercise while sparing muscle glycogen used only 140 mg. of silymarin a day.

However, using it to protect the liver from damage from drugs (e.g., oral steroids) would likely require dosages from 160 mg. to 800 mg. of silymarin a day.

While the substance has been accepted as a safe herbal product, it'd be best not to use much more than 800 mg. a day. If you develop headaches, gastroenteritis, and/or dermatological problems, ease up, Butch.

For general health purposes, though, products that boast anything from 500 to 1,000 mg. per serving are fine. (Keep in mind that, as stated, taking 500 to 1,000 mg. won't actually give you that amount of active ingredient. That's okay, though, as that amount would constitute overkill in anybody who wasn't using the product to treat some disease or condition.)

I like Life Extension's Milk Thistle product. It contains 750 mg. of milk thistle extract, which provides 600 mg. of silymarin, including both the A and B types of silibinin, the major active constituent of silymarin.

Milk Thistle Extract

Bottom line, milk thistle/silymarin would likely make a great adjunct to anyone's supplement regimen, at the very least for its health-promoting abilities and its apparent promise in helping you maintain a lower body fat percentage.

References

  1. Gholemreza, Karimi, et al. "Silymarin, a Promising Pharmacological Agent for Treatment of Diseases," Iran J. Basic Med Sci, 2011, Jul-Aug. 14(4):308-317.
  2. Shirali, Saeed, et al. "Effects of Silymarin Supplementation on Leptin, Adiponectin and Paraoxanase Levels and Body Composition During Exercise: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Clinical Trial." Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 2016.

As an Amazon Associate, T Nation earns from qualifying purchases. When you buy something, using the retail links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. T Nation does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our policy.