Want to Avoid Toxic Overload? Meet Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle is a hepatoprotective herb, which means it helps to protect liver cells and even help restore liver cells that have been damaged from toxin exposure. 

Dr. Will Cole is our featured functional health expert in the Total Reset, a free 14-day program that combines daily yoga classes, simple plant-based breakfast recipes, and nutritional supplements into one total reset. You can learn from him in-person at Wanderlust Palmaïa (December 7-10, 2023). 

If you’ve changed your diet and still aren’t seeing results in your health, toxins could be to blame. While our genetics haven’t changed for thousands of years, the onslaught of toxins we face on a daily basis in the modern world has increased tenfold.

In my functional medicine telehealth clinic, I consult patients across the world on missing pieces of their health puzzle. And more often than not, lifestyle factors like exposure to toxins end up being some of the biggest factors in maintaining your health. So, let’s take a deeper look at the negative effects of toxins and why detoxing should be more of a regular practice in your health journey.

How Toxic Overload Occurs

Your liver is the second largest organ in your body, only second to your skin (…and yes, your skin is an organ). Your liver is responsible for hundreds of important functions including digestion and metabolism. But one of its primary functions is to filter out toxins from the foods you eat and the things you are exposed to in your environment.

However, when your liver is overloaded with toxins and can’t process them fast enough, it creates a cascade of chronic inflammation in your body, which further affects your liver’s ability to rid itself of these toxins. It becomes a vicious cycle: toxins build up, the body becomes more inflamed, detoxification is inhibited, more toxins build up, inflammation increases, and on and on. 

In functional medicine, we call this toxic load. The only way to break the cycle is to reduce your toxin exposure and support your liver’s natural ability to detox, allowing the liver to restore itself and catch up with the detoxification workload.

How to Know if You Have Toxic Overload

Some common signs we see in our practice that make us test for toxins are any of these symptoms: 

  • Your breath and body odor aren’t so fresh,
  • Sugar cravings,
  • Allergies are all year long vs just seasonal,
  • Skin issues like acne or rashes,
  • Struggle losing weight,
  • Brain fog,
  • Sore joints,
  • Anxiety or depression.

Learn the Sources of Environmental Toxins

All around us, toxic chemicals can lead to thyroid problems and other chronic health conditions. Let’s look at just five of the key toxins and where they originate:

Perchlorates are a by-product of jet fuel production found in drinking water and food supply chains that have been linked to thyroid problems. Even low levels of perchlorate exposure can have negative health effects on the thyroid, so choose drinking water that has been purified to avoid this toxic chemical.

Flame retardants are used in furniture, computers, and tvs and have been linked to developmental issues in children. Using natural products in your household could help reduce your exposure.


Xenoestrogens are chemicals used in personal care products that act as estrogen in the body contributing to imbalanced hormone levels.

PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid is the chemical used to make Teflon, food wrappers, and other products, but higher concentrations of PFOA are associated with several common thyroid diseases. To avoid PFOAs, I recommend sticking with stainless steel cookware, storing your food in glass containers and minimizing your consumption of food packaged in plastic.

Plastics are bad for the environment. We all know that. But they can also be hazardous to your body’s environment. Antimony, a chemical that leaches from plastic bottles, is one concern. Phthalates in some plastics have been shown to decrease thyroid function. Bisphenol A (BPA) – also used in plastics, food can coatings, and dental sealants – decreases thyroid receptor site sensitivity, causing thyroid resistance, similar to PCBs. As that plastic-free lifestyle suggests, it’s best to avoid plastics as much as possible. Store food in glass or steel containers, and never heat food in plastic.

And these are just a fraction of the toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis. Yikes. 

How to Minimize the Effects of Environmental Toxins

There are tons of detoxes out there, so ideally you want to talk to a functional medicine doctor to get a full intake. I recommend running lab work to see how your immune system is functioning and look at your liver function tests and kidney markers. I also run advanced toxin tests like heavy metal tests, mold testing and tests that look for glyphosate and other chemicals that we talked about before. 

You want to support your liver by both reducing the amount of toxin it has to deal with, and clear the toxins that are already in your system.

These two parts are made clear by the processes we call “phases of liver detoxification”: Phase 1 is all about oxidation of harmful toxins in order to break them down into less harmful metabolites, but that process does create free radicals, which we want to flush out of the body, which is what Phase 2 is all about. If you have a sluggish Phase 2, this might look like brain fog, insomnia and the like.

One herb that can assist in activating phase 1 detoxification is Milk Thistle. Milk Thistle is a plant that aids in eliminating toxins that have built up in the liver. It derives its name from its characteristic milky-white veins on the leaves, which when broken open, produce a milky sap. Milk Thistle has a rich history in Western Herbal Medicine to help support healthy liver function, and is one of the most well-researched natural remedies for treating liver problems. 

It is a hepatoprotective herb, which means it helps to protect liver cells and even help restore liver cells that have been damaged from toxin exposure. 

Milk Thistle has compounds in it that help to reduce inflammatory cytokines, and it has antioxidant properties that can help reduce oxidative stress. 

WLSupplements_Milk thistle_6It’s commonly available at most natural foods stores, and you can take it in capsule form or in tincture form, which you can drop directly into your mouth, or mix into a bit of water. This is a wonderful way to start your day before consuming coffee or breakfast, to give your detoxification system a leg up. 

You’ll notice that herbs like milk thistle have a distinctive bitter taste, but this is typical of the powerful herbs considered to be digestive bitters. Wanderlust Milk Thistle has a nice addition of natural peppermint which makes it super palatable. 

In addition to herbs like Milk Thistle, it’s important to look at how the diet can support detoxification. Focus on consuming green leafy vegetables, which contain folate that helps the methylation process which drives detoxification, as well as sulfur-rich vegetables, like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and asparagus. These contain the powerful antioxidant glutathione, which is an antioxidant that  is essential for activating Phase 1 and Phase 2 liver detoxification.

It’s also essential to move your body, because sweating is your body’s natural way to detoxify. Many toxins are released from your body when you break a sweat. (This is why the yoga practice that anchors the Total Reset assists in detoxifying your system alongside the Milk Thistle and plant-based recipes). So whether you are doing yoga, or getting into a sauna, make sure you are incorporating something that makes you break a sweat during your week. 

When you start to change your diet to focus on whole foods that aid in detoxification and reducing your exposure to toxins in your everyday life you should start to notice some changes in your body:

  • You should notice that your skin is clearer. Your skin is a major source of detoxification and as you lower your toxic exposure fewer and fewer toxins will need to be excreted through the skin.
  • You may also notice that you are thinking sharper and you have better energy levels. 
  • You should be able to move with less pain and feel less inflamed in general. 

Your body has the natural ability to detoxify, but because of the environmental factors in our modern lives, we need to make sure our choices are supporting the body’s ability to detoxify, and not adding to our toxic load.


Dr. Will Cole is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam, having started one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems.

He is the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting, and the brand new Gut Feelings.

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