Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), a perennial flowering plant in the daisy family, has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, the plant has also naturalized to areas of California and Australia. Milk thistle is easily identified by its milky sap, and the distinctive white markings on its leaves, which were once believed to be splashes of the Virgin Mary’s Milk. Reaching heights of up to five feet and spreading very quickly, the plant produces purple flowering heads that can be eaten fresh as a vegetable, similar to artichokes. The seeds, however, are the part of milk thistle valued for their use in natural remedies and alternative therapies.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, and later in French folk medicine, depression and emotional distraught were thought to arise from liver malfunction. In the spring, milk thistle seeds were made into a spring tonic to relive the winter blues and release pent-up emotions housed in the liver. Today, science has proven that these milk thistle benefits of the past had some basis in truth. In fact, the herb is still used by modern healers to treat liver disorders and protect the liver against toxins.
Milk Thistle Benefits
A flavanoid complex known as silymarin is extracted from milk thistle seeds. This complex is believed to be the biologically active component of the plant. For this reason, the terms “silymarin” and “milk thistle” are often used interchangeably. Milk thistle products are most widely used in the United States and Europe for the treatment of liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver, and a few clinical trials have examined the herb’s efficacy for this purpose. One older Hungarian study, published in Orvosi Hetilap in 1989, found that patients with chronic alcoholic liver diseases taking milk thistle daily for six months experienced improved liver function. (Source: Orvosi Hetilap 1989 Dec 17;130(51):2723-7.)
Another study from the same year, published in the Journal of Hepatology, found that individuals with cirrhosis of the liver taking milk thistle daily experienced an increased survival rate. Patients were given 140 mg silymarin daily for two years, and their survival rate increased over four years. Researchers noted that the treatment was effective in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis, and no side effects from the supplement were reported. (Source: Journal of Hepatology 1989 Jul;9(1):105-13.)
Other milk thistle health benefits include:
- Treating hepatitis B and C – A flavonoid complex in milk thistle stimulates the production of new liver proteins, which enable the liver to produce new cells to replace the old ones damaged by the hepatitis infection. This process prevents the replacement of infected liver cells with fat or fibrous tissues.
- Treating acne, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Chron’s disease – Milk thistle increases bile production in the liver. Bile helps break down fats in the small intestine, and increasing bile helps remove the testosterone byproducts (via the stool) that cause acne. It also helps protect the intestinal lining in individuals with Chron’s disease, and relieves constipation, including constipation caused by IBS.
- Treating gallstones, high cholesterol and atherosclerosis – Because milk thistle stimulates protein synthesis in the liver, it lowers total cholesterol and helps the liver convert LDL or “bad” cholesterol into HDL or “good” cholesterol. The herb also prevents cholesterol excreted in the bile from being reabsorbed by the body, and prevents oxidation of bad cholesterol that leads to plaque in the lining of the arteries. In addition, milk thistle lowers the cholesterol content of bile, which reduces the chance of gallstones.
- Treating diabetes – A study published in 2006 in Phytotherapy Research, found that patients with type II diabetes taking milk thistle daily in addition to conventional therapy experienced a significant decrease in blood glucose levels, total cholesterol, good cholesterol and triglycerides after four months of treatment. (Source: Phytotherapy Research 2006 Dec;20(12):1036-9.) Milk thistle is also effective in treating diabetes caused by alcohol damage to the liver, and insulin resistance, a condition in which the liver no longer responds to insulin.
- Improving symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – Another milk thistle benefit is the herb’s ability to maintain the body’s supply of glutathione, an antioxidant that slows the progress of Parkinson’s disease. It also lessens common symptoms of the disease, including heartburn, constipation and digestive problems.
- Reducing psoriasis outbreaks – Milk thistle is also one of the most effective home remedies for psoriasis, according to naturopathic physicians. The herb is believed to reduce the frequency of outbreaks, likely because it increases bile production, which flushes away the toxins associated with the disorder.
- Death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning – One of the traditional benefits of milk thistle is the emergency treatment of death cap mushroom poisoning. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, animal studies have found that milk thistle extract completely counteracts the toxic effects of the mushroom if administered within 10 minutes of ingestion. If taken within 24 hours, the herb still significantly reduces the chance of liver damage and death.
- Treating cancer – Early studies show that milk thistle may have anti-cancer effects, but more research is needed. Active substances in the herb are believed to stop cancer cells from reproducing or dividing, shorten their lifespan, and reduce the blood supply to tumors. These effects have only been shown in test tubes, however, and further human studies are needed.
Preparation and Dosage
Most milk thistle preparations are standardized to contain 70 to 80 percent silymarin, the herb’s active ingredient. Commonly available forms include capsules, liquid extract and tincture made from the plant’s seeds. Another form of milk thistle, known as silymarin phosphatidylcholine complex, is also available, and some studies show that it may be absorbed more easily than other forms. Phosphatidylcholine is a key element in cell membranes, and it helps the milk thistle easily attach to cell membranes.
For disorders of the liver, the University of Michigan Health System recommends taking 420 to 600 mg daily of a milk thistle extract standardized to 80 percent silymarin content. In general, this dosage will yield improvement in 8 to 12 weeks. For people with chronic liver disorders, the herb is perfectly safe to use as a long-term therapy. Avoid milk thistle extracts made with alcohol if you have alcohol-related liver problems, however.
Unlike other herbs beneficial for the liver, such as the pau d’arco herb, milk thistle has almost no side effects. Most people can use it safely, including women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Because it stimulates the gallbladder and liver, the herb may have a mild laxative effect in some people, but this typically clears up in two to three days. Talk to a qualified medical practitioner before giving milk thistle to a child, as no studies exist showing whether the herb is safe for children.
Always talk to your doctor before taking any new herbal supplement, especially if you currently take prescription drugs, as side effects and interactions may occur. Liver problems can be serious. Be sure to consult your doctor if you suspect you have a liver problem, and only take milk thistle under the doctor’s supervision.
Milk Thistle Tincture Recipe
Making your own tincture is a great way to harness the health benefits of milk thistle. If you have alcohol-related liver problems, substitute apple cider vinegar for the alcohol in this recipe. For the best results, take 1 tsp. of the tincture daily – alone or mixed in water or tea. Tinctures made with alcohol keep indefinitely if stored in a cool dark place. Use or discard tinctures made with vinegar within two years for the best results.
- 2 to 3 oz. milk thistle seeds
- Wide-mouth jar with tight-fitting lid
- 80 to 100 proof alcohol, such as brandy or vodka
- Dark colored storage jar
- Place the milk thistle seeds into a wide-mouth glass jar, and pour in the alcohol until it reaches 1 to 2 inches over the top of the seeds.
- Seal the jar very tightly, to prevent the alcohol from evaporating.
- Place the jar in a cool, dark place out of direct sunlight. If necessary, place it inside a paper bag and move to the darkest room of the house, or put it inside a closed cabinet.
- Allow the tincture to remain for six to eight weeks, shaking the jar vigorously once or twice each day.
- Pour the tincture through a piece of cheesecloth into a dark colored jar for storage. Discard the spent milk thistle seeds.
- Label the bottle with the date and contents, and store in a cool dry place when not in use.
Milk Thistle Liver Tea Recipe
If you don’t like the taste of your newly-prepared milk thistle tincture or purchased milk thistle extract, you can add it to warm water or herbal tea to make it more palatable. The following recipe, adapted from “Cooking for Healthy Healing Book Two: The Healing Recipes” by Linda Page, is a wonderfully tasty, healthy and liver-strengthening way to take advantage of the many milk thistle benefits. The recipe yields 4 cups, but it can be doubled or halved as necessary. Store excess in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Drink up to 3 cups daily.
- 4 cups water
- 3 pieces peeled ginger root, about 1-inch in length
- 2 tbsp. dried sage leaves, or 4 tbsp. fresh leaves
- 15 drops milk thistle seed extract or tincture
- Honey to sweeten, optional
- Bring 4 cups water to a boil.
- Place the ginger and dried sage leaves in a heat-proof container, and pour the boiling water over them.
- Allow the mixture to steep for 20 minutes, and then strain into a serving pitcher. Discard the spent herbs.
- Serve or refrigerate. Add the milk thistle extract or tincture just before serving for the best results.
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