Silybum marianum

Other names: Marian Thistle, Mediterranean Milk Thistle, Mary Thistle

Thistle is the old English name for a large family of plants occurring chiefly in Europe and Asia. Introduced by early colonists in America, it is naturalized in eastern North America and common in California. The seeds are used. The seeds of this plant are used nowadays for the same purpose as Blessed Thistle.

Milk thistle has been grown in monastery gardens since ancient times.

In agriculture the Thistle is the recognized sign of untidiness and neglect. In fact, it has always been a plant of ill repute. And yet in medicine Thistles are far from useless. The Marian, or Milk Thistle, is perhaps the most important medicinally among the members of this genus.

Medicinal Uses for Milk Thistle

Milk ThistleThe medicinal parts of the plant are the ripe seeds.

When the liver is not properly filtering blood, the body becomes stressed. Milk thistle is coveted for its healing powers.

According to early Greek references, milk thistle seed have been used to treat liver disorders for over 2,000 years. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), wrote that the juice of the plant mixed with honey was excellent for “carrying off bile”.

The sixteenth-century English herbalist John Gerard considered Milk thistle to be “the best remedy that grows against all melancholy [liver] diseases,” and the eighteenth-century German physician Rademacher used the seed for chronic and acute liver diseases. During the next two centuries, its use declined, but by the 1930s, interest in clinical use of milk thistle preparations for liver disease was growing again.

More than 300 studies conducted since the late 1960s provide an experimental basis for the effectiveness and safety of silymarin, the main chemical complex of milk thistle seeds in the treatment of liver disease. Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it may help the liver repair itself by growing new cells.

German health authorities allow milk thistle preparations to be used in supportive treatment of chronic inflammatory liver disorders such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fatty infiltration caused by alcohol or other toxins. In addition to its well-documented curative action, silymarin can help prevent liver damage if it is taken before exposure to toxins.

Milk thistle is often suggested as a treatment for alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. But scientific studies show mixed results.

Based on traditional use, milk thistle has been used as an emergency antidote to poisoning by deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). The herb was formerly used as a malaria treatment, emmenagogue and for uterine complaints.

An infusion is prepared by pouring boiling water over 1/2 teaspoonful of the herb and then straining after 5 to 10 minutes. The average dose of the infusion is 2 to 3 cups daily.

What Science Skeptics Say

There have been some studies of milk thistle on liver disease in humans, but these have been small. Some promising data have been reported but study results at this time are mixed.

Some studies outside the United States support claims of oral milk thistle to improve liver function, there have been flaws in study design and reporting. To date, there is no conclusive evidence to prove its claimed use.

Recent NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) funded research includes a phase II study to better understand the use of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C. Additional research, cofunded by NCCAM and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, includes studies of milk thistle for chronic hepatitis C and non-alchoholic steato-hepatitis (liver disease that occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol.

The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Nursing Research are also studying milk thistle for cancer prevention and to treat complications in HIV patients.

Culinary Uses of Milk Thistle

The young leaves may be eaten as a salad.

They were sometimes baked in pies. The roots may be eaten like those of Salsify.

The heads of this thistle formerly were eaten, boiled and treated like those of the Artichoke.

Cleansing Liver and Gallbladder Tea

Purchase dried herbs at your local health food store for this recipe. In a jar, mix together the herbs. This tea also helps with fat digestion. Many people suffer from headaches because their bodies cannot handle the amount of fat in their diet.

1 part milk thistle seed
1 part artichoke leaves
1 part dandelion root

Use one teaspoon of the herb mixture per cup of water. Simmer in a non aluminum pot on the stove for 15 minutes. Strain. Drink 1 cup of the liquid mixture three times per day.

Did you know?

Medical use of milk thistle to treat liver and gallbladder disease can be traced back more than 2,000 years.

Milk Thistle is also an antioxidant that is more potent than vitamins C and E.


There are no known serious side effects, contraindications, or drug interactions related to the use of milk thistle preparations. Loose stools may occur during the first few days of use.

Occasionally, people report a laxative effect, upset stomach, diarrhea and bloating.

Some people may get a rash from touching milk thistle plants. Milk thistle can produce allergic reactions, which tend to be more common among people who are allergic to plants in the same family (for example, ragweed, chrysanthemum, marigold and daisy).

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