Feeling like your system needs a bit of a tune-up now that spring is here? Then turn to milk thistle (Silybum marianum), an ancient botanical remedy. Milk thistle, noted for its liver-supporting properties for more than 2,000 years, is back in the limelight and scientists are studying the herb’s active ingredients to better determine how it works and just what, exactly, it can do.
Milk Thistle Plant Basics
Used medicinally and for food, milk thistle is a stout, branching member of the Asteraceae family native to the Mediterranean and southwestern Europe. In the 19th century, milk thistle roots were baked into vegetable pies; the stalks were peeled, soaked in water and cooked like asparagus; and the unopened flower buds were eaten like artichokes. The plant’s seeds, which are black, shiny and topped with silky fibers, are the focus of its medicinal properties.
Liver Cleansing Herbs: History and Lore
The first known reference to milk thistle’s effectiveness in liver support is found in Pliny the Elder’s first century a.d. writings. He recommended that the juice of the plant be mixed with honey and drunk as a tonic. Other references can be found in herbals throughout much of European history, and preparations of milk thistle seeds became widely available in German pharmacies by the 1930s. The German Commission E recommends milk thistle to treat toxic liver damage, alcohol-induced cirrhosis and other chronic liver diseases. The herb may also aid in protecting the kidneys, mitigating psoriasis and boosting weak immune systems.
Modern Medicinal Research
Milk thistle’s effectiveness in treating liver complaints is generally attributed to a complex of phytochemicals known as silymarin. Studies have indicated that silymarin may provide liver support for alcoholics and others suffering chronic liver disease by stabilizing cell membranes to prevent toxins from entering them, and by accelerating cell regeneration in damaged liver tissue. More recent studies have largely focused on silymarin’s potential in treating hepatitis. A randomized, placebo-controlled trial between 2003 and 2005 noted that hepatitis patients treated with recommended doses of silymarin showed earlier symptom improvement than those given the placebo. Another study using in vitro human liver cells in 2010, found that silymarin interrupts the hepatitis C virus’s lifecycle at several stages, protecting the liver cells from extensive damage. As seems to always be the case in any branch of medicine, more clinical studies are needed to fully establish milk thistle’s effectiveness in supporting the liver against hepatitis and other ailments.
Tip: Some call milk thistle a hangover cure, as it can help with headaches, skin outbreaks and digestive distress. —Grow Your Own Drugs (Reader’s Digest, 2010)
Lauren Holt, a former intern at The Herb Companion, is editorial assistant at Farm Collector magazine.