Does Milk Thistle Lower Iron Levels

Does Milk Thistle Lower Iron Levels?

Iron is an essential mineral for the body's health, playing a crucial role in the process of red blood cell formation and oxygen transport. However, in some cases, the iron levels in the body are too high, leading to health issues. Some people turn to natural methods to support iron reduction, including milk thistle. Milk thistle may help reduce iron levels in the body. Details will be elaborated in this article.

Before exploring further, please read the disclaimer located at the end of this webpage.

Key Takeaways

  • Milk thistle may help reduce iron levels in the body by reducing the increase in serum iron levels after meals and decreasing ferritin, the storage form of iron.
  • Currently, there is still no large, reliable study on the relationship between milk thistle and hemochromatosis.
  • Hemochromatosis can be treated through surgical venesection, medication, or lifestyle and dietary adjustments.

Understanding Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is an inherited condition that causes the body to accumulate too much iron. Iron is typically absorbed from food and used by the body to make red blood cells, proteins, and other substances.

However, when the body cannot regulate iron levels, it can accumulate in organs such as the liver, pancreas, and heart, leading to damage and disease.

The pathogenesis of hemochromatosis is due to excessive and continuous iron absorption in the diet, leading to the loss of normal control mechanisms, resulting in a gradual but substantial increase in iron stores in the form of ferritin and especially hemosiderin [1].

Genetic causes of hemochromatosis include defects in genes encoding HFE, transferrin receptor 2, ferroportin, hepcidin, and hemojuvelin.

Hepcidin, in particular, has emerged as a central regulator of iron homeostasis, acting through its receptor ferroportin. All causes of hemochromatosis disrupt this equilibrium mechanism [2].

Hemochromatosis manifests symptoms such as increased skin pigmentation, enlarged liver, liver dysfunction, heart disease, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, and neurological disorders.

Excess iron can be removed through venesection [1], stem cell therapy, bone marrow transplantation, erythrocyte phlebotomy, or the use of beneficial nutrients such as polyphenols, pectin, curcumin, carnitine, and milk thistle.

Does Milk Thistle Lower Iron Levels?

Milk Thistle May Blocks Iron from a Meal

Milk Thistle May Blocks Iron from a Meal

Consuming milk thistle with a meal may reduce the increase in serum iron levels in the body after eating, thereby reducing iron absorption and benefiting the treatment of hemochromatosis.

This conclusion was published in a clinical trial conducted in 2010. Researchers conducted a crossover study in 10 homozygous C282Y mutation patients in the HFE gene with a vegetarian meal containing 13.9 mg of iron and 200 ml of water.

Blood was tested once before the meal and then at 4-hour intervals after the meal. The results showed a decrease in serum iron levels [3].

Milk Thistle Lowers Ferritin

Serum ferritin concentration is a commonly used indicator to assess iron accumulation in the body. In the case of hemochromatosis, patients typically have excessive iron accumulation. Thus, serum ferritin levels in affected individuals are usually higher than in unaffected individuals.

Milk thistle may reduce ferritin levels, decreasing iron stores in the body. This conclusion was clearly demonstrated in a study on the effects of milk thistle on patients with chronic liver inflammation.

Here, experts showed a significant decrease in serum ferritin from the start to the end of treatment. Through IdB 1016 (a standardized silybin and soy phosphatidylcholine complex) dosing over 12 weeks, iron stores in the body, especially in patients with progressive fibrosis, were reduced [4].

Milk Thistle May Support Liver Health in Hemochromatosis

Milk Thistle May Support Liver Health in Hemochromatosis

Through its mechanisms of action, hemochromatosis can cause lipid membrane peroxidation, and excess iron can damage liver cells [1].

Milk thistle is believed to have beneficial effects in treating liver disease through antioxidant mechanisms, reducing free radical production, and lipid peroxidation.

Additionally, its antimicrobial activity and toxin-sequestering properties by inhibiting toxin binding to liver cell membrane receptors also help reduce liver damage from iron overload [5].

What does Science Say about Milk Thistle and Hemochromatosis?

While some studies have addressed milk thistle's ability to reduce ferritin and iron stores in the body, there is still no large, reliable study on the relationship between milk thistle and hemochromatosis.

Although milk thistle contains the active compound silymarin, seen as an antioxidant that supports liver function and various other bodily functions, its effects on iron levels and safety in hemochromatosis patients need further consideration and evaluation.

Remember, hemochromatosis is a serious condition that should be managed by a physician. Milk thistle should not be used as a replacement for physician-recommended treatments.

If you are using milk thistle, speak to your doctor to ensure its safety and avoid any interaction with other medications you may be taking.

How to Use Milk Thistle for Hemochromatosis

While there are no studies directly addressing the safe dosage of milk thistle for hemochromatosis, the safety of this herbal remedy has been recommended by the Mayo Clinic for over 4-6 years.

Analysis from multiple related studies on the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of milk thistle suggests a reasonable daily dosage of 140 mg - 400 mg, divided into three doses to maintain safety and achieve quick effectiveness [6] [7][8].

There are also studies indicating that a dosage of 600 mg/day of milk thistle remains safe; however, starting with a lower dosage is advisable to accurately determine the body's tolerance.

Potential Side Effects and Safety of Milk Thistle for Hemochromatosis

Potential Side Effects and Safety of Milk Thistle for Hemochromatosis

According to the Mayo Clinic, milk thistle is safe when used at appropriate dosages; however, overdosing may lead to gastrointestinal issues such as constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, itching, rash, and headaches.

Additionally, it may interact with medications containing Cytochrome P450 substrates, diabetes medications, Raloxifene (Evista), Simeprevir, or Sirolimus.

For hemochromatosis, there is evidence of safety concerns when using milk thistle in a 68-year-old female patient. Specifically, this patient was diagnosed with hemochromatosis with elevated liver enzymes and very high ferritin levels (2118).

She self-administered 200 mg milk thistle capsules daily against medical advice. After several venesection surgeries, her ferritin levels decreased, but liver enzyme levels spiked. She was advised to discontinue milk thistle use, which she did, and positive changes in both ferritin and liver enzymes were observed.

This is the first reported case of serious adverse effects of milk thistle in a patient with homozygous C282Y hemochromatosis. Therefore, individuals with this condition should be cautious when using milk thistle to improve liver function, as it may have entirely opposite effects [9].

Other Methods for Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is a challenging condition to diagnose through initial symptoms such as joint stiffness and fatigue. To treat this condition, besides considering the benefits of milk thistle, you should also consider the following methods:

Venesection surgery: This involves removing blood from the body regularly, similar to blood donation, known as phlebotomy. The amount of blood removed and the frequency of removal depends on age, overall health, and severity of the patient's iron overload condition.

Chelation for those unable to undergo venesection: You can use medications to remove excess iron. These medications can be supplemented through injection or oral route and allow excess iron to be excreted through urine or stool.

Dietary adjustments: Avoid iron supplementation and synthetic vitamins containing iron, limit alcohol intake, and avoid raw fish and shellfish while minimizing vitamin C supplementation.

Conclusion

After investigation, it can be concluded that milk thistle may help reduce iron levels in the body. However, using milk thistle to treat iron absorption disorders, especially hemochromatosis, needs further discussion with a physician, as there may be unintended side effects. Remember, maintaining a diverse and balanced diet remains the best method for overall health maintenance.

References

  • [1] Smith, L. H. "Overview of Hemochromatosis." Western Journal of Medicine, vol. 153, no. 3, 1 Sept. 1990, pp. 296–308, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1002534/.
  • [2] Beutler, Ernest. "Hemochromatosis: Genetics and Pathophysiology." Annual Review of Medicine, vol. 57, no. 1, Feb. 2006, pp. 331–347, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.med.57.121304.131310.
  • [3] Hutchinson, C, et al. "The Iron-Chelating Potential of Silybin in Patients with Hereditary Haemochromatosis." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 64, no. 10, 14 July 2010, pp. 1239–1241, https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2010.136. Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.
  • [4] Bares, Julie M., et al. "Silybin Treatment Is Associated with Reduction in Serum Ferritin in Patients with Chronic Hepatitis C." Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, vol. 42, no. 8, Sept. 2008, pp. 937–944, https://doi.org/10.1097/mcg.0b013e31815cff36. Accessed 10 Feb. 2022.
  • [5] Abenavoli, Ludovico, et al. "Milk Thistle in Liver Diseases: Past, Present, Future." Phytotherapy Research, vol. 24, no. 10, 7 June 2010, pp. 1423–1432, https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.3207.
  • [6] Abascal, Kathy, and Eric Yarnell. "The Many Faces OfSilybum Marianum(Milk Thistle): Part 2 - Clinical Uses, Safety, and Types of Preparations." Alternative and Complementary Therapies, vol. 9, no. 5, Oct. 2003, pp. 251–256, https://doi.org/10.1089/107628003322490698. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
  • [7] Braun, Lesley . "Milk Thistle: Silybum Marianum." Informit, search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/informit.848830098604939. Accessed 14 June 2024.
  • [8] ---. "The Many Faces OfSilybum Marianum(Milk Thistle): Part 2 - Clinical Uses, Safety, and Types of Preparations." Alternative and Complementary Therapies, vol. 9, no. 5, Oct. 2003, pp. 251–256, https://doi.org/10.1089/107628003322490698. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
  • [9] Whittington, Chris. "Exacerbation of Hemochromatosis by Ingestion of Milk Thistle." Canadian Family Physician, vol. 53, no. 10, 1 Oct. 2007, pp. 1671–1673, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2231430/.
  • [10] Mayo Clinic. "Hemochromatosis - Diagnosis and Treatment - Mayo Clinic." Mayoclinic.org, 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hemochromatosis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351448.
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Author

Ralph S. Albert, with over 10 years of expertise in nutrition and research, now heads the Research division at Vinatura Supplements. His dedication and extensive knowledge ensure top-quality articles on nutrition and health, collaborating with a skilled team. He has successfully completed The VINATURA Expertise Research Training Program, underscoring his commitment to Vinatura's mission. Ralph has also published numerous articles and conducted valuable research in the field, making him a trusted resource for individuals on their wellness journey.

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