My introduction to milk thistle was made “down-under” while attending an NSP Australia convention. NSP Australia was carrying a product called St. Mary’s thistle (another name for milk thistle) before the US introduced the product. An Australian naturopath told me how wonderful the remedy was for protecting the liver. He was using it to protect a swim team against the chlorine and chemicals in the pool and it had improved the athletic performance of every member of the team.
Milk thistle has been in use in Europe for hundreds of years. Both the leaves and the seeds have been used. Its traditional uses include jaundice, constipation, lack of bile flow, gallstones and dry, scaly skin. It was also used traditionally to treat depression, a condition that was associated with liver problems in traditional Western medicine. The leaves have also been used as a bitter digestive and liver tonic, and to stimulate production of breast milk.
Milk thistle has great “signatures” for its uses. Its spiny, thistle nature shows its ability to protect. It has an almost “hostile” feeling, which makes one think of the anger and irritability associated with liver energy. The leaves have milk white markings, which give it the “signature” of being good for lactating women. Its other name, Saint Mary’s Thistle, comes from an association of these white markings with the Virgin Mary’s milk. It is interesting that two closely related plants, blessed thistle and artichoke also have hepatoprotective and liver cleansing effects; they just aren’t as strong as milk thistle.
So, while milk thistle isn’t the only hepataprotective herb out there, it is the strongest one we know about and has the most research validating its usefulness. Milk thistle seeds, the part used in modern herbalism, contain a group of compounds (flavonolignans) collectively called silymarin. Silymarin contains compounds like silybin, silychristin, silydianin and isosilybin. It is these compounds that appear to give milk thistle its primary liver benefits. The seeds contain 1.5% to 3% of these compounds, and the industry standard is to selectively extract these compounds to concentrate them rather than use the whole herb. NSP uses a standardized extract that is 80% silymarin.
Silymarin has been shown to bind with cellular membranes in the liver and protect them from chemicals and toxins. Examples of compounds milk thistle will protect the liver from include alcohol, tetracycline, acetominophen, thallium, erythromycin, amitrityline and carbon tetrachloride. It can also reduce side effects from chemotherapy. It appears to act by binding to cell membranes to keep them from absorbing toxins. It is used in hospitals in Europe to treat poisoning from Amanita (death cap) mushrooms.
Silymarin also raises glutathione levels in the liver and scavenges free radicals, thus supporting liver detoxification. It lowers blood cholesterol, increases bile flow and enhances immune function. Milk thistle improves survival rates for people with cirrhosis of the liver and is very effective for hepatitis and liver damage. It can actually help reverse liver damage. It takes about one to two months of use to start reversing liver damage, and as long as 6-12 months for cases of chronic hepatitis.
The herb is extremely safe with almost no negative effects other than the fact it may act as a mild laxative in some or cause other “cleansing” reactions. In fact, milk thistle was once grown as a vegetable in Europe. The leaves were cooked as a pot herb and the flowers eaten in a manner similar to artichokes.
Besides being sold as a single herb, milk thistle is also found in Super Antioxidant, Cellu-Smooth, Enviro-Detox, Milk Thistle Combination and GreenZone.
The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier
Herbal Therapy and Supplements by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston
PDR for Herbal Medicines by Medical Economics Press