Milk Thistle Health Benefits

An herbal defense against everyday toxins.

| July/August 1997

  • the best remedy that grows, against all melancholy diseases
    Photography by J. G. Strauch, Jr.

Through the ages, the thistle has earned a reputation as a cursed plant. Bristly and prickly, it spreads rapidly and can take over vast fields where less invasive plants once stood. Ancient people often considered the thistle an abomination, a sign of a rich land gone wrong. Even today, if you choose to grow thistle in your garden, neighbors may turn against you if the flower head goes to seed.

Such factors could overshadow the thistle’s therapeutic assets. But modern research shows that the fruit of the milk thistle (Silybum marianum) may restore and protect the liver, the body’s largest internal organ, from damage by chemicals, alcohol, and other toxins.

Clues From The Past

Historical references to the thistle’s medicinal value, including liver protection, are particularly abundant in the herbals of the Middle Ages. But milk thistle has been praised throughout the centuries for its ability to cure; such observations have contributed to modern interest in the herb.

Dioscorides, the first-century Greek physician who wrote a treatise on more than 600 medicinal plants titled De Materia Medica, stated that a tea of thistle seeds could be used for treating snakebite. John Gerard, a sixteenth-century English herbalist, went further. “My opinion,” he wrote, “is that this is the best remedy that grows, against all melancholy diseases.” Melancholy once referred to any liver or bile disease; it comes from the Greek roots melan, for black, and chole¯, for bile.



Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century apothecary, thought milk thistle was good for removing obstructions of the liver and spleen, and recommended an infusion of the fresh root and seeds to treat jaundice. The Eclectics, a school of medical herbalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, used milk thistle to treat varicose veins and various pelvic congestions, including those linked to menstruation and to the liver, spleen, and kidneys.

Modern Views

Using milk thistle as medicine became less common in the West during the twentieth century, perhaps with the discovery of penicillin and the development of modern medical approaches. But during the 1970s in Germany, where herbs have remained an integral part of medical care, scientists began testing the herb’s fruits (commonly referred to as seeds) and discovered some compounds collectively called silymarin.



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