Milk Thistle is a herb that nearly everyone has heard of, even those who aren’t interested in herbal medicines. Having become fashionable of late for its supposed ability to prevent hangovers, it’s available in every health food shop and chemist. However Milk Thistle has been used in folk, as well as official, medicine for thousands of years, primarily as a tonic for the liver and gallbladder but also as a more general aid to digestion and, as the name suggests, as a galactagogue or stimulant of nursing mothers’ milk.
Milk Thistle is a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy family, and is native to Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East though it can now be found growing wild in most of Europe and much of the world. Its beautiful spiny leaves are veined with white, said to be the milk of the Virgin Mary which explains one of it’s other common names, St. Mary’s Thistle. Its Latin binomial is Silybum marianum or Carduus marianum, depending on the source .
Today we primarily use the seed though in the past all parts of the plant were used either as food or medicine. Culpepper used decoctions of the root, the young leaves were boiled as a vegetable and the flower heads apparently eaten like artichokes.
Mrs Grieves includes the following wonderful quote in her Modern Herbal. “Westmacott, writing in 1694, says of this Thistle: ‘It is a Friend to the Liver and Blood: the prickles cut off, they were formerly used to be boiled in the Spring and eaten with other herbs; but as the World decays, so doth the Use of good old things and others more delicate and less virtuous brought in.’” Oh dear, what would they say of modern eating habits I wonder?!
Milk Thistle is one of the most important liver remedies we have due to its ability to both protect the liver from potential toxins and help regenerate healthy cells. It has been found useful in a variety of liver and gall bladder conditions such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, gall stones, fatty liver and poisoning. In fact it is still used today to treat poisoning from amanitas such as the death cap and the destroying angel.
Milk Thistle contains powerful anti-oxidants including silymarin flavonoids which protect liver cells from damage by any number of potential toxins such as pollution, alcohol, drugs and metabolic wastes. They not only increase resilience of liver cells but also stimulate protein synthesis which helps new healthy cells to be formed. This is why people like to take it before and after having a big night out, though of course it works much better when taken for a stretch of time rather than as a one off to counteract an evening’s indulgence!
Milk Thistle can help lower blood fats and improves the removal of fats from the system by stimulating the bile. It’s also very anti-inflammatory and has been used with success in inflamed skin conditions where liver congestion is thought to be a factor. It also helps protect the kidneys and has a beneficial action on the immune system.
Milk Thistle is generally considered rather bland in flavour, though some herbalists refer to it as sweet whilst others believe it to be slightly bitter. It is certainly not as bitter as many of our traditional western liver remedies making it more useful for those with a cold constitution or people who are depleted and in need of building as well as detoxification. It is moistening and Matthew Wood recommends it for people with dry constipation due to liver congestion and lack of bile. In such cases the stools will be hard and small (rabbit droppings!) or they may also be pale in colour due to lack of bile. They might also float rather than sinking which can indicate poor fat absorption.
There are a number of ways you can integrate Milk Thistle seed into your life. It can be taken in larger therapeutic doses for specific conditions, best to consult a herbalist or do lots of research in such cases, or it can be used in smaller amounts on a regular basis as a preventative and for general maintenance of good health.
The constituents in Milk Thistle don’t extract well in water so making teas and decoctions is not the best way to use them. Ideally a tincture or ground seeds is the way to go. If you are looking for a more complete nutritional and building medicine then you can’t beat the seeds and they are also useful for people who can’t tolerate alcohol as is often the case in those with compromised liver function.
I buy milk thistle seeds by the kilo and grind them in my blender, a couple of hundred grams at a time to maintain freshness. Make sure if you do this that you grind a little at a time to avoid overheating and damaging the seeds. I use 1 or 2 teaspoons a day in food, sprinkled on soups and salads or blended into smoothies. I’ve also been adding it to home made crackers with a bit of powdered Reishi extract, a perfect way to love your liver.
Milk Thistle Smoothie:
1/2 cup of oats
1 dried fig
1 teaspoon ground milk thistle seeds
1/2 teaspoon vanilla powder
500ml Almond milk or other milk of choice
This makes a lovely breakfast drink which I’ve been having often recently.
There is a wealth of information available on Milk Thistle as its effects and constituents have been well studied so I’d urge you to find out more if you are interested. Despite my dislike of all the marketing hype of recent years, I do think this herb is so useful for our modern lives which are full of stress and environmental toxins, many of which can have interactions with each other. And any excuse to have a yummy smoothie is alright with me.
Botanical illustration of Milk Thistle courtesy of Wikipedia
David Hoffman – Medical Herbalism
Matthew Wood – The Eathwise Herbal
Thomas Bartram – Bartram’s Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine
Mrs Grieves – A Modern Herbal
A.K. Tillotson – The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook