Benefits of Milk Thistle for Weight Loss

yellow thistle flowerhead and bud
Milke Thistle plant. (Image: PatrikStedrak/iStock/Getty Images)

While milk thistle is a complementary and alternative medicine that's been used for thousands of years, it's not likely to bring about large amounts of weight loss. To lose weight, each day you need to burn more calories than you eat. The research is still very preliminary on the use of milk thistle -- and its active ingredient silymarin -- for weight loss. Be sure to check with your doctor before adding this supplement to your daily routine, as it may not be safe for everyone.

Milk Thistle and Weight Loss

Silymarin has the potential to help with blood sugar control, and this is the focus of many of the studies that are looking into the potential benefits of milk thistle. One such study, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in July 2007, found that using silymarin, in addition to the diabetes medication glibenclamide, helped with blood sugar control. It also helped people lose weight and decrease their body mass index over the course of the 120-day study, compared to using this medication alone or with a placebo. Some people find that milk thistle has a laxative effect, which could result in some water weight loss, but it isn't likely to cause any permanent fat loss. Sometimes, milk thistle is also used to help increase the appetite of people who have a low appetite, so a chance exists that using milk thistle could make it more difficult to lose weight, if it has this effect on you.

Blood Sugar Control and Weight Loss

Silymarin may help lower blood sugar levels, according to an animal study published in Koomesh, the Journal of Semnan Medical Sciences University, in 2009. Diets that help maintain steadier blood sugar levels may help with weight loss, which may be part of the reason why a supplement that potentially helps with blood sugar control is being promoted for weight loss purposes.

Cutting out high-glycemic foods may be a better approach for weight loss than using supplements. A review published in The Cochrane Library in July 2007 noted that low glycemic index diets may help people with weight loss, compared to low-fat diets. The glycemic index is a measure of how a particular food affects blood sugar levels, and foods that have a high glycemic index are more likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Foods that are low in carbohydrates, foods that are less-processed, high-fiber foods, foods that aren't cooked very long, foods containing protein and fat, and acidic foods are among those likely to be lower on the glycemic index.

Potential Contraindications and Side Effects

Some people who use milk thistle supplements experience side effects such as indigestion, bloating, gas or diarrhea. Milk thistle supplements may also cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed or to other plants in the same family. People who have diabetes, those who have hormone-sensitive conditions and those who take statins, estrogen, anti-anxiety medications, cancer medications, blood thinners, antipsychotics, seizure medications or allergy medications should check with their doctor before using milk thistle.

Sensible Ways to Improve Weight Loss

The best way to lose weight is to follow a balanced, reduced-calorie diet that includes a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean protein foods -- and to increase the amount of physical activity you get each day. Foods high in water, fiber or protein tend to be more filling than highly-processed foods. Focusing on eating these high-fiber and high-protein foods may make it easier to stick to your daily calories. Participating in a mix of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise will help you burn more calories and maintain your lean muscle mass, while also losing weight.

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