Milk Thistle-Silybum Marianum, Carduus Marianus
Also known as St. Mary's thistle, silymarin, emetic root, snake milk, milk ipecac, etc.
Parts used: Seeds and aerial portions
Merdians/Organs affected: liver, spleen, kidney, skin
Properties: hepatic, bitter tonic, demulcent, antidepressant, hepatoprotective, antioxidant
This hardy biennial had its beginnings in southern Russia, Europe and North Africa. It is often found in waste places and fields. In its first year, you will often only find the spiked leaves that are deeply lobed and marked with a web like white variegation. The second year the flowering stems appear topped by purple thistles surrounded by a ring of thorny spines (much resembling a star). It is a member of the sunflower family.
To Dioscoredes it was called, 'silybon' which means, 'thistle-like'. The commone name of milk thistle came from early times when it was also called "Virgin Mary's Milk" or "Our Lady's Thistle" and believed that the milky striations upon the leaves came from the Virgin Mary splashing it upon them. Culpeper (1616-1654) used the seeds in water as a remedy for jaundice and other liver-related afflictions. He also would use it as a cooked vegetable (the young plants only, cut off the pricklies though) to cleanse the blood. In fact, it was grown as an artichoke-like vegetable until the Germans found how medicinal it was (1970's). Now it is widely known across the globe as more of a medicine than a food.
Milk thistle contains something called silymarin, which is really a flavonoid substance (it is actually a group of flavonoids). Silymarin protects the liver from toxins and has been found to even regenerate liver cells. It is so potent that it can protect one from the poison of the death cap mushroom (if taken immediately upon poisoning) and carbon tetrachloride (dry-cleaning fluid). It will also prevent any fatal damage that might normally scar or harm the liver from such poisoning. Both of the aforementioned substances will kill the liver so it is good to know that milk thistle can protect against such things.
Silymarin has also been found to improve liver function in situations where cirrhosis or hepatitis is present. It can also help to reduce side effects associated with chemotherapy. There have been a host of studies done on silymarin. It has been found to be stronger as an antioxidant than both vitamins C and E. Some studies done on animals using harsh chemical agents (two of which were named earlier) including galactosamine (amino sugar from glycoprotein hormones and is considered to be hepatotoxic) and praseodymium nitrate (an agent used to color glass and enamel) found silymarin to be an effective liver protectant against all of the above. It is believed this is due to its ability to prevent the loss of glutathione by the liver. The greater the amount of glutathione found in the liver, the more capable the liver is of protecting itself against harmful toxins in the body. The lack of glutathione is what makes the liver susceptible to disease and damage. Silymarin not only protects against the loss of glutathione, it has actually been found to increase the level by up to 35%. A very powerful herb indeed. Silymarin also protects against inflammation of the bile duct (usually taking 70-200 mg., 3 times a day in the standard studies I reviewed) as well as protecting against fatty infiltration of the liver.
In one study conducted for a 4 year period and involving 87 individuals suffering from cirrhosis (46 received silymarin and the rest received a placebo), the silymarin group had a better survival rate than the placebo group (58% and 39% respectively).
Silymarin has been found to be very effective against both acute and chronic hepatitis. When patients took high doses (420 mg per day for 3-12 months) it was found that all the symptoms associated with hepatitis (abdominal pain, lack of appetite, fatigue) went away and any liver cell damage had been completely reversed. As it does also increase bile flow, it can also act as a mild laxative, so if taking this in large doses for an extended period of time it is suggested one use some other foods or herbs that will counter the loose stools one might get from extended use of silymarin (such as oat bran, pectin or psyllium).
The silymarin is mainly found in the seeds of milk thistle (the flowering head once it is near its end stage). Other thistles also have medicinal qualities and have been used for centuries, not just as food but for anything from stomach complaints to diabetes. (See the insert of bull thistle below). The seeds have been ground in a coffee mill and mixed in yogurt or sprinkled on cereal as another method of ingestion (and it does work in that capacity as well). One tablespoon twice daily is said to be the equivalent of 400 mg.
The Native Americans used various species of bull thistle (pictured below) for respiratory congestions, parasite infections, to stop bleeding, venereal diseases, as a contraceptive and to assist in stimulating the flow of milk in nursing mother's. It has also been used for psoriasis and as a treatment for gallstones. Some cultures even used it to increase the chances of a woman giving birth to a male child.
Other uses of milk thistle have been as a skin wash for leprosy, pimples, ulcers, reashes and as a root tea for dysentery and diarrhea. The thistle flower petals have been used as a chewing gum substitute and the thistle seed oil was once used as lamp oil in Europe.
There is a caution against some thistles that one should not consume them in large quantities as they contain potentially carcinogenic alkaloids so please be aware of that fact when choosing to use other thistles. Given the fact that milk thistle has been used for a long time with no ill effects I do not think this would be one to worry about. In fact I would take it on a daily basis myself given its propensity to protect the liver from such harmful toxins and environmental pollutants.
You cannot make a tea with milk thistle as it is not water soluble. It is alcohol soluble so making it into a tincture is the best way to get it or as a powder form and taken that way or encapsulated. This is truly an amazing herb worth your time and attention. Certainly worth a space in the medicine cabinet.
As is my custom I have included some links below for milk thistle. I hope they come in handy for you in your journey to better health!