Milk Thistle is one of the ‘Carduus’ thistles – ‘Carduus marianus’, also known as ‘Silybum marianus’. It has been used to benefit health of the liver for at least 2000 years. The Roman Pliny wrote of the beneficial effects of milk thistle on the loiver. And it was highly regarded by well know herbalists Dioscorides, Galen, Gerard and Culpepper.
The thistles are a sub-group of the Compositae – daisy – family, found mainly in Europe and Asia, though also in other parts including Australia. Thistles tend to be found where fertile ground has been neglected, where they may smother other plants. Such was the concern in Australia, that an Act of Parliament imposed penalties on anyone who permitted thistles to grow on their land.
In the last few decades, much research has been carried out in Europe on milk thistle . In some parts – Germany, for example, milk thistle has become one of the most used herbs.
Milk thistle and the liver
The main reason for the popularity of milk thistle is that it both protects the liver, and improves its function. This in turn helps the body to detox itself, as the liver performs the most detox-related functions of any organ in the body.
In addition, there are no contra-indications that I know of for milk thistle. I can find no reports of bad reactions; the only mild reaction which has been noted is occasional loosening of the bowels. This is nearly always for a few days only; and is because milk thistle stimulates liver function. Extra bile is therefore produced, which may have a temporary laxative effect.
The only noteworthy ‘inter-actions’ with drugs have been where milk thistle has reduced the damaging effects of taking drugs. Milk thistle is widely regarded in the natural therapy field as being protective of the liver when drugs are being taken as well as help to detox these drugs when appropriate.
The most active components of milk thistle
The most active parts of milk thistle appear to be a group of agents known collectively as ‘silymarin’. Certainly, research has shown that silymarin appears to have two particular effects on the liver :
- Silymarin protects the liver from damage due to toxins or disease, and
- Silymarin can actually boost regeneration of liver tissue where there has been damage.
These remarkable properties indicate why milk thistle helps so much with detox. Combined with the fact that milk thistle is very safe, this is a valuable herb indeed.
This combined reasons explain why milk thistle has been extremely popular to take alongside medical drugs. For example, some sources recommend taking this herb where chemotherapy is being used for all the reasons given above.
As for milk thistle promoting repair of damaged liver tissue following alcohol abuse, anecdotal evidence (reports from users who are not in a scientific study) certainly supports this.
Milk thistle is also recommended to assist detox and recovery after hepatitis, which an cause damage to the liver.
Milk thistle has been shown in laboratory experiments to protect the liver against attack by carbon tetrachloride – a strong poison found in some household cleaners; and against Death Cap mushroom – which can be fatal if eaten.
Results like this highlight the tremendously protective effects of milk thistle.
A further use of milk thistle recommended by some, is for nursing mothers to improve breast milk. Some authorities, however, doubt the benefits of milk thistle for this purpose.
From all the evidence, milk thistle is certainly a very safe and valuable herb to protect and repair the liver and promote detoxification.
The liver is abused so much in everyday living – stress, pollution, and chemicals are all a challenge for the liver; anything that we can do to improve the liver ‘s ability to cope with these influences will be for the good.
Certainly, in our house, there are always a variety of herbal capsules on the table at dinner time – and milk thistle is often there. We help ourselves to a variety of 4-6 capsules, varying them every day. In this way, we help the liver, kidneys, heart, and other organs of the body regularly. Anyone present is welcome to supplement their meal with 2 or 3 of these. In this way, the herbs become almost like another vegetable!
The liver performs scores of functions within the body which are essential to our good health. So looking after the liver should be given high priority.
Some of the important functions
- Detoxification. For example, removal of poisons, such as alcohol
- Fat digestion
- Maintenance of body metabolism – ie helps keep all the cells working
- Vitamin storage
- Breakdown of excess hormones
- Maintenance of good blood quality
The liver performs so many functions in the body that, if it is not working at top efficiency, these functions can easily suffer. This is where milk thistle can be so helpful.
A small or moderate decrease in the performance – because of a ‘clogged up’ liver – would not be picked up by normal medical tests. But an alternative practitioner would be alerted by such symptoms as:
- Poor digestion of fatty foods
- Headaches on the sides of the head, and/or affecting the eye(s)
- Dark or clotted menstrual blood
- Feeling bad for the first 30-60 minutes of the day
- Easily stressed or frustrated
These symptoms often occur when the liver is ‘congested’, and can be very unpleasant. They are not life-threatening, but certainly damaging to the quality of life. If they continue for some years, other organs will become involved and, eventually, more serious disease may occur.
Use milk thistle to reduce the damaging effects of a 21st century lifestyle!
Everyone needs help for the liver in these days of high stress and fast living. Unless you live on top of the Himalayas and meditate daily for long periods, you could do with support for the liver!
Of course, milk thistle is no more a cure-all than any other herb. If you have any serious ailment involving the liver, you obviously need further expert advice. But if you recognise any of the symptoms listed above, you will probably benefit from taking milk thistle. Either take it alone, or alongside any other treatment you may be having.
As with all herbs, it is probably best not to take milk thistle continuously. You could take it for three to four months, for example, then break for one to three months before resuming.
If you decide to try milk thistle – or any other herbal supplement – make a brief note in a diary of how you feel each day or each week. Then you can see whether or not the herb is beneficial for you. It is very hard to remember how you felt several months ago; referring to notes you made at that time is extremely useful.
‘Liverish’ symptoms can just creep up on you; keep an eye out for them (as listed above) and take your milk thistle!