Milk Thistle

Other Names of Milk Thistle:

  • Silymarin
  • Marian Thistle
  • Mediterranean Thistle
  • Mary Thistle
  • St. Mary’s Thistle
  • Lady’s Thistle
  • Holy Thistle
  • Silybum Marianum

Useful Parts of the Plant

Seeds, roots, leaves and flower heads

Milk thistle is a plant valued for its medicinal properties. References to milk thistle can be traced back to the ancient Greece and the Bible. Native to Europe, North Africa, Russia and Asia Minor, the milk thistle plant is an herbaceous plant that grows up to six feet in height. It has spiny stems that branch out at the top. The plant has wide leaves and flowers that are a purplish-red in color. Milk thistle gets its name from the milk-like sap that can be squeezed out of the leaves.

The seeds of the milk thistle plant are valued the most for their medicinal and health-promoting benefits. You can have the seeds in a tea or add them to a smoothie or shake. Alternatively, you can buy tinctures or capsules of milk thistle from herbal or health food stores. Milk thistle is generally safe for consumption though it may act as a mild laxative. However, pregnant or breastfeeding women should not have milk thistle. If you are taking medications for cancer, cholesterol, allergies or seizures, you should not take milk thistle in any form as it can react adversely with these drugs. Allergic reactions to milk thistle are also possible if you are also allergic to daisies, ragweed, or marigolds.

Nutritional Information and Properties

The most important compound present in milk thistle is silymarin. Silymarin is extracted from the seeds of the milk thistle plant. Silymarin is an antioxidant that can destroy harmful free radicals in the body. Silymarin is also responsible for improving liver function and protecting it from damage. Milk thistle also contains essential fatty acids such as linoleic acids and omega-6 fatty acids that are important for bone and skin health.

Health Benefits and Therapeutic Uses

  • Several studies show that the compound silymarin found in milk thistle seeds is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. Apart from protecting the liver from toxins it can also aid regeneration of new cells in the organ.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver or chronic hepatitis caused by alcohol abuse can be treated with milk thistle extract.
  • People suffering from viral hepatitis especially hepatitis C may reduce long-term liver damage with the help of regular milk thistle therapy.
  • Milk thistle is used as an antidote for poisoning from the Deathcap mushroom. Taking milk thistle within ten minutes of ingesting the poisonous mushroom can totally negate the toxic effects and reduce chances of death.
  • Research is being conducted on the effects of silymarin on cancer cells. It is believed that the compound may be able to stop cancer cells from multiplying and therefore reduce the risks of the disease.
  • Milk thistle can lower blood sugar levels considerably so care should be taken if you suffer from hypoglycemia or if you are on medications for diabetes. 

Side effects may include indigestion, headache and itching. Rarely, milk thistle may result in heartburn, gas, diarrhea, joint pain and sexual dysfunction. Experts believe that milk thistle has an estrogen-like effect on the body and can thus aggravate any hormone-related medical conditions such as breast, ovarian, or uterine cancers or fibroids of the uterus. Similarly, taking milk thistle regularly may affect the efficacy of oral contraceptives.

Though milk thistle has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, it can also trigger off a series of side effects and complications if not used carefully. Always speak to your health care provider about the proper dosages and the possibility of any negative interactions with your regular medication.

Other Uses

There are no significant other uses of milk thistle.