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Milk thistle and its derivative silymarin are not a substitute for insulin and they do not cure diabetes. However, they sometimes reduce insulin resistance and make managing diabetes and some of its complications a lot easier.

There are over 1300 herbs that lower blood sugars. Taking most of them is a bad idea.

Hundreds of herbs lower blood sugar levels by stimulating beta cells in the pancreas to release insulin. The usefulness of these herbs depends, of course, on still having beta cells in the pancreas that still produce insulin. These herbs are useless in type 1 diabetes, in which an autoimmune process has compromised the ability of these cells to make the vital hormone. They are of temporary usefulness in type 2 diabetes, but they make the underlying problem in type 2  even worse.

Type 2 diabetes is at least at first a disease of insulin resistance, a reaction of cells over almost all of the body to take in less glucose in response to insulin. Some herbs force the body to make so much insulin that resistance becomes futile, at least for a while. However, increasing insulin levels also increase insulin resistance, so that the body has to produce more and more insulin to get the same effect. In a process similar but much slower than the autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing cells in type 1 diabetes, beta cells gradually "burn out" in response to excessive stimulation. The herb that makes diabetes control a little easier for a few months can make control a lot harder for years to come.

Milk thistle is among a very few herbs that make managing diabetes easier without damaging the insulin-making machinery of the pancreas in the process. Milk thistle reduces insulin resistance. In fact, it reduces a very specific form of insulin resistance. Milk thistle encourages liver health. It reduces the effects of free radicals that can trigger the formation of fibrous tissue in the liver. It helps liver cells overcome the toxic effects of high blood sugar levels, enabling them to do their work in reducing blood sugar levels.

What does the liver do that lowers blood sugars? Everyone, diabetic or not, stores "emergency energy" in the liver. Think about it. Most of us eat all day long, but we don't have to get up at night to nibble some more. The reason we can make it eight hours asleep without sleep walking to the refrigerator is that our livers store glucose in the form of glycogen. This energy storage molecule, which is also made and used inside muscle cells, combines one molecule of glucose (sugar) with four molecules of water. Glycogen is "fire proof." It won't start oxidizing inside a cell in the liver, the way it might start generating free radicals if it were still circulating in the bloodstream. In this safe form, it can stay in the liver until it is needed by the rest of the body.

The healthier the liver, the more glucose it can store. The more glucose is stored in the liver, the lower glucose levels are in the bloodstream. Milk thistle helps the liver overcome the free radical generating processes that keep it from storing glucose, and helps the liver keep blood sugar levels lower.

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