Milk Thistle

Latin Names: Silybum marianum; Carduus marianus

Other Names: Marian Thistle (English); Sillybon (Greek)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Asteraceae family

Part Used: Seeds, seed extract, leaves, roots

Basic Qualities: Temperate in heat, slightly drying. A very balanced and temperate herb.

Other Qualities: Penetrating, opening, cleansing (extract); nutritive (whole seed)

Taste: Mildly bitter and sweet; slightly unctuous.

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – cleanses the blood. Phlegmatic – a mild expectorant that has demulcent and emollient properties to soften and liquefy phlegm, as well as mildly astringent properties to aid in the expulsion of phlegm; also a mild diuretic. Choleric – a choleretic / cholagogue that improves the generation and secretion of Yellow Bile. Melancholic – one of the best remedies for aggravated Black Bile known.

Tropism: Milk Thistle has an affinity for the liver and spleen, the hepatobiliary system, the stomach, the female breasts and the blood.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The chief active constituents of Milk Thistle seed is a group of related flavolignans known collectively as Silymarin, which is sold in health food stores in pills and capsules; this comprises from 1.5 to 3% of the dry weight of the seeds. Also present in the seeds are Silyhermin and both Neosilyhermin A and B; protein and mucilage, making up 25 to 30% of the dry weight of the seeds; Quercitin and Taxifolin; Kaempferol and Dihydrokaempferol; Apigenin, Eriodyctiol, Chrysoeriol and Naringin; Phytosterols like Cholesterol, Campesterol, Stigmasterol and Sitosterol; the leaves also contain Luteolin, Triterpine Acetate and Fumaric Acid. The typical composition of Silymarin in its common supplemental form consists of about 65 to 80% Silymarin, with the rest being various fatty acids, chiefly Linoleic, Oleic and Palmitic acids.

Medicinal Properties: Hepatoprotector, choleretic, cholagogue, alterative, galactogogue, emollient, expectorant, antidiabetic, hypolipidemic; the leaves are stomachic and carminative.

Cautions and Contraindications: Milk Thistle is not only very balanced and temperate in its overall nature and temperament, but it is also very mild and nontoxic; in fact, its chief virtue is to help the liver detoxify itself from noxious poisons and toxins. Caution and monitoring may be necessary when taking Milk Thistle if you are taking prescription antidiabetic drugs, as Milk Thistle has a mild lowering effect on blood sugar, and may enhance or increase the effectiveness of these drugs. And so, adding Milk Thistle as a supplement may require a readjustment of the dosage of prescription antidiabetic drugs. The addition of Milk Thistle can also be effective in protecting the liver from damage caused by many prescription medications, including antidiabetic and cholesterol lowering drugs.

Medicinal Uses: As a hepatoprotector to help the liver detoxify from food, metabolic, chemical and environmental toxins. To remove obstructions from the liver and spleen in jaundice, hypochondriac fullness and distension, and melancholia. To help heal the liver and regenerate liver cells in hepatitis, cirrhosis and fatty liver disorders. As a galactogogue to improve the flow of breast milk in nursing mothers. As an antidiabetic and hypolipidemic dietary supplement to help lower high blood sugar and cholesterol. A tea made from the leaves is very effective as a stomachic and carminative in an agitated or upset stomach.

Preparation and Dosage: The most common form in which Milk Thistle is taken is as the concentrated extract of the seeds, which is called Silymarin. This is commonly available in pill or capsule form in health food stores, in which the usual dose is from one to two capsules, containing from 150 to 300 mg. of the extract, once or twice per day. Any dosage beyond this must be handled with caution and respect; although the extract in itself is very mild and nontoxic in nature, large doses may provoke strong cleansing and detoxification reactions in the liver, and in the rest of the body as a result. The leaves of Milk Thistle can be brewed up as a tea, with one heaping teaspoon per cup of water for beverage purposes, and one heaping tablespoon per cup for medicinal or therapeutic purposes.

Herbal Formulation: For considerations of potency and effectiveness, the extract, or Silymarin, is the most common form in which Milk Thistle is found in herbal and dietary supplements. Although the whole seed may be used, keep in mind that its potency as a liver detoxifier and hepatoprotector is quite a bit weaker than the extract. As a hepatoprotector, Silymarin is commonly combined with other herbs to cleanse the liver and stimulate the production and flow of bile, such as Artichoke leaves or extract, Dandelion root, Turmeric or Curcumin.

Classic Combinations: With Chicory root to cleanse and detoxify the liver. With Fenugreek seed to stimulate milk production in nursing mothers, and to stimulate liver metabolism and function. With Juniper berries to stimulate liver and digestive function. The leaves of Milk Thistle can be combined with Sage as a soothing and healing stomachic, and to improve liver and stomach function.

Description: Milk Thistle is a common weed that grows in profusion throughout the Middle East and the Balkans of Eastern Europe, as well as elsewhere. The flower pods contain a fluffy down within them, within which lie the seeds, which contain Silymarin, the main active ingredient. The seeds can be eaten as they are, and have a rich, nutty flavor with just a hint of bitterness. Although the seeds have a mild detoxifying and hepatoprotective effect, their extract, called Silymarin, is much more powerful, and one of the most potent substances known for detoxifying the liver and regenerating liver cells in cases of hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver, jaundice and other liver disorders. And so, Milk Thistle has been scientifically studied more than just about any other herb for its healing and regenerative effects on the liver. The great value of a powerful herbal hepatoprotector like Milk Thistle and its extract, Silymarin, is clear and obvious, especially when one considers the negative effects that so many prescription drugs have on the liver. For a multitude of reasons, the liver is one of the most challenged organs today.

In the 16th century, the famous English herbalist Gerard wrote in his herbal that he considered the Milk Thistle to be “the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases”. He also recommended Milk Thistle against the venom of snake bites. The aggravation or accumulation of excess Melancholy, or Black Bile, generally centers upon the liver and the spleen as a part of a chronic derangement of the biliary flow and metabolism, and is characterized by a sallow complexion, fullness and distension in the chest and under the lower ribs, poor appetite and digestion, and generalized malaise. These are principally the symptoms of what we would recognize today as being liver toxicity. Traditional medicine called such a syndrome Melancholia; if Yellow Bile was the offending humor, then the complexion would be a brighter yellow, and the overall symptom picture would be more hot, irritable, acute and vehement in nature, whereas if the offending humor was Black Bile, the complexion would be a darker or duller yellow, and the overall symptom picture would be more chronic and indolent in nature.

Greek Medicine considers the liver to be one of the four most important internal organs in the body; it is the principal organ of the Natural Faculty, which governs digestion and metabolism, nutrition and growth. Modern medicine calls the liver the master chemist of the bloodstream, and Greek Medicine calls it the kitchen of the body, which cooks and prepares the Four Humors, which are used as nourishing food by every cell, organ and tissue in the body. Maintaining a healthy, balanced digestion and metabolism and a sound, balanced nutritional state of the organism requires that we take good care of the liver. Yet no organ is more challenged by the toxic realities of modern life, in which the assaults and injuries can come from many corners: fast food, junk food, food additives, etc…; drugs and alcohol, including prescription drugs; industrial and environmental chemicals; and the list of potential offenders goes on and on. Including Milk Thistle extract in your daily health regimen will help your liver fight back against this terrible toxic assault.

As a medicinal substance, Silymarin is remarkably mild, temperate and balanced in its basic qualities, and remarkably gentle and nontoxic in its essential nature. Bite into a capsule of the stuff, and at first it will taste kind of nutty and woody, followed by a slightly bitter aftertaste. Minutes later, that bitter aftertaste in your mouth will start to grow in intensity; that’s a sign that your liver has begun to detoxify itself under the influence of the Silymarin, as the liver starts to kick out and kick up excess morbid bile, both black and yellow. Silymarin is actually a collective term for a group of related flavolignans that comprise it, which are powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals, oxidative stress and cellular damage. And with Silymarin, the primary site or focus of this cellular regeneration and repair work is the liver. In addition to the flavolignans contained in Silymarin, Milk Thistle seed extract also contains fatty acids and phytosterols that improve fat metabolism in your liver, fighting fatty liver disease, and lowering triglycerides in the blood.

The hepatoprotective effects of Silymarin seem to be due to a number of different mechanisms: antioxidant activity, toxin blockade at the membrane level, enhanced protein synthesis in the liver cells, and possible anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. Milk Thistle was traditionally used to treat poisoning due to snake bites or accidental consumption of the Death Cap or Amanita mushroom. Nowadays, we have so many other chemical and environmental toxins to worry about. Although Silymarin, or Milk Thistle seed extract, is very mild, nontoxic and free of side effects in itself, if your body is very toxic, the use of Silymarin may precipitate or bring on detoxifying or cleansing reactions as your body throws off an old toxic load and seeks to find a new state of balance. The detoxification symptoms may vary, depending on where the toxins are stored, and which organs or systems of the body they are being released through.

And so, if your toxic load is high, you may want to proceed cautiously and judiciously with Silymarin therapy. Common symptoms of liver detoxification reactions can be: irritability, headaches, dizziness or giddiness, nausea, ulceration on the side of the tongue; red, sore or bloodshot eyes; digestive disturbances, constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel; and changes in the coloring of the urine or the stool. When these crises come on, you may want to back off or temporarily discontinue taking Silymarin for a couple of days until the crisis is over, taking palliative remedies to ease the detoxification symptoms if necessary. The trick is to take plenty of fluids and allow the liver to continue detoxifying by not consuming any of the heavy, toxic food or drink that you’re trying to detoxify from. Reverting back to one’s old toxic ways may make the detoxification symptoms cease, but it will also defeat your detoxification efforts. 

Silymarin is also being studied by the scientific community for its possible benefit in type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Although the results are still inconclusive, the high anti-oxidant activity of Silymarin seems to be responsible for its effectiveness at lowering insulin resistance. Silybinin, an antioxidant component of Silymarin, as well as Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, may lower insulin resistance by working against the IKKbeta enzyme, which disrupts insulin signaling. Silymarin also seems to be effective at treating diabetes related nephropathy. Silymarin also seems to be effective in lowering serum triglyceride levels. And so, if you are taking prescription antidiabetic drugs to lower your blood sugar and want to start using Silymarin as a dietary supplement, it would be wise to monitor your blood sugar levels closely to see how your body reacts. Silymarin can also help the liver detoxify from the harmful effects of antidiabetic drugs on the liver.

Milk Thistle seeds have also been used traditionally to increase the production of breast milk in nursing mothers. In this sense, Milk Thistle seeds closely resemble Fenugreek seeds in their galactogogue effects – so why not use them together? For this purpose, a powder of the whole seeds is prepared or a decoction of the whole seeds is taken, three times per day. For this purpose, the whole seeds must be used, because they have nutritive properties that the extract lacks. Milk Thistle is so called not only because it enhances milk production in nursing mothers, but also because the white veins on its leaves resemble streams of milk. This has stimulated the religious imagination of the medieval herbalists, who saw these as rivulets of milk from the Virgin Mary’s breasts – and hence the name Marian Thistle.

To sum things up and conclude this article, modern life, and the toxic and polluted environment we live in, as well as the pharmaceutical drugs that so many people take, are very toxic and damaging to the liver. In contrast, many, many medicinal herbs have beneficial effects of one sort or another on the liver, which is the most important digestive and metabolic organ in our body. And Milk Thistle and its extract, Silymarin, is the absolute champion or superstar of them all when it comes to detoxifying, healing and regenerating the liver.

Related Species: Milk Thistle is just one of a large family of Thistles that are used for various purposes in herbal medicine. In Western herbal medicine alone, we have not only Milk Thistle but also Blessed Thistle, Carline Thistle, Star Thistle and many more. And all of them have therapeutic themes and emphases in common with Milk Thistle.


A Modern Herbal, Vol. II by Mrs. M. Grieve, pg. 797. @1971 by Dover Publications, New York, NY USA                
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DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.