Milk Thistle: What It Is & How It's Used

The milk thistle plant commonly grows from 2 to 7 feet in height, with spiny leaves and reddish-purple, thistle-shaped flowers. It has also been called wild artichoke, holy thistle and Mary thistle.

Native to Europe, milk thistle has a long history of use as both a food and a medicine. At the turn of the twentieth century, English gardeners grew milk thistle to use its leaves like lettuce (after cutting off the spines), the stalks like asparagus, the roasted seeds like coffee, and the roots (soaked overnight) like oyster plant. The seeds and leaves of milk thistle were used for medicinal purposes as well, such as treating jaundice and increasing breast milk production.

German researchers in the 1960s were sufficiently impressed with the history and clinical effectiveness of milk thistle to begin examining it for active constituents. In 1986, Germany's Commission E approved an oral extract of milk thistle standardized to 70% crude silymarin content as a treatment for liver disease.

What Is Milk Thistle Used for Today?

Based on the extensive folk use of milk thistle in cases of jaundice, European medical researchers began to investigate its medicinal effects. It is now widely used to treat alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic fatty liver, liver cirrhosis, liver poisoning, and viral hepatitis, as well as to protect the liver from the effects of liver-toxic medications. According to some (but not all) research evidence, treatment produces improvements in symptoms of chronic liver disease, such as nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, fatigue, and pain.

Liver enzymes as measured by blood tests may improve, and if a liver biopsy is performed, there may be improvements on the cellular level. In addition, some studies have shown a reduction in death rate among those with serious liver disease.

The active ingredients in milk thistle appear to be four substances known collectively as silymarin, of which the most potent is named silibinin. When injected intravenously, silibinin is one of the few known antidotes to poisoning by the deathcap mushroom, Amanita phalloides. Animal studies suggest that milk thistle extracts can also protect against many other poisonous substances, from toluene to the drug acetaminophen. One animal study suggests that milk thistle can also protect against fetal damage caused by alcohol.

Silymarin appears to function by displacing toxins trying to bind to the liver as well as by causing the liver to regenerate more quickly. It may also scavenge free radicals and stabilize liver cell membranes. However, milk thistle is not effective in treating advanced liver cirrhosis, and only the intravenous form can counter mushroom poisoning. There is considerable evidence from studies in animals that milk thistle can protect the liver from numerous toxins. However, human studies of people suffering from various liver diseases have yielded mixed results.

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