Discovering the Benefits of Milk Thistle

Discovering the Benefits of Milk Thistle

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle belongs to the same plant category known as the asteraceae family and shares this group with other botanical species such as the sunflower and the daisy. It also has a long and established history in natural and alternative medicine. Although milk thistle is now cultivated for its therapeutic properties and can be found worldwide, it tends to grow most viably in dry and sunny conditions and has origins as an invasive weed native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. The official botanical name for milk thistle is Silybum marianum, and it has also been labelled with the following monikers:

• Wild artichoke
• St Mary thistle
• Holy thistle
• Our lady's thistle

The History of Milk Thistle

The use of milk thistle dates as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used to treat liver ailments, and even served as a rudimentary antidote to snake poison. Milk thistle was also used during the Middle-Ages as the primary method of dealing with liver problems. However, it was not until the late 1960s that scientists managed to successfully extract a compound called silymarin, which they concluded to be the active ingredient responsible for milk thistle's health benefits. Today, modern herbalists and naturopathic practitioners still use the compounds derived from milk thistle seeds to treat a spectrum of health concerns. 

What Does Milk Thistle Look Like?

Milk thistle is a thick and robust looking thistle, with spiny and branched stems that can reach up to one meter in length. The head of the milk thistle plant is light purple in colour, with a diameter that ranges from 4 to 12cm. Although these flowers are prickly to the touch, some people find them pleasing to the eye and they are often used in a decorative capacity. The leaves of the milk thistle plant are usually rectangular or oval in shape and are mainly green in colour with white veins running through them. The upper leaves clasp to the stem of the plant, and the leaves are referred to as being lobate, which means that they have a distinctive lobe.

What Are the Benefits of Milk Thistle?

The roots and leaves of the milk thistle plant are edible and are sometimes used in cooking, but it is its potential therapeutic properties that primarily account for milk thistle's fame. As a traditional herbal medicine, it has been used to deal with a wide variety of conditions and ailments. Milk thistle is popularly used to treat some of the common symptoms that result from overindulgence of food and drink and may be of help in dealing with digestive issues, such as:

• Indigestion
• Upset stomach
• Nausea
• Mild diarrhoea

However, it is also popularly used to deal with a number of other health problems: Hangover Although the best and most obvious way to avoid a hangover is to drink in moderation or to stick to soft beverages, a milk thistle hangover tablet can be taken before and after a night on the town to deal with the symptoms of the dreaded hangover.

Liver Health and Detox

Milk thistle has a long history of being used to support the health and function of the liver. Liver health supplements are a popular choice with those interested in maintaining the condition of this vital organ. Cholesterol Possibly because of its potential role in maintaining liver health, milk thistle is commonly used to support the management of healthy cholesterol levels. Milk thistle can be used in conjunction with a balanced diet and prudent lifestyle to keep cholesterol levels in check.

How Does Milk Thistle Work?

It is usually the seeds of the milk thistle plant that are used in the production of natural remedies, and normally a concentrated extract is taken in tincture, tablet or capsule form. It is possible to make it into a herbal tea, but as it is not water soluble, this not generally considered as being an effective method of administration. The active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, actually refers to a range of similar compounds, including the following:

• Silybin
• Isosilybin
• Silychristin
• Isosilychristin
• Silydianin
• Taxifolin

The majority of research on milk thistle has focused on its active ingredients, as opposed to the plant as a whole, and studies on the different ways milk thistle extract confer its numerous benefits have elucidated the following mechanisms:

Cellular Nutrition Support

It is thought that milk thistle extract can help to protect the integrity of certain cells in the body, and may even promote their regeneration.


Silymarin has antioxidant properties, meaning it can help protect the body against attack from damaging free radicals.


Many people believe that the active ingredients found in milk thistle extract have an ability to disrupt the process that leads to unwanted inflammation in the body.


Silymarin and silybin may protect the liver from harmful compounds by blocking toxins and stimulating the action of enzymes that make them less damaging to the body.

Are There Any Side Effects of Using Milk Thistle Extract?

Most people do not experience any side effects when using milk thistle, and those that do occur are typically transient and mild. On the rare occasion that people have experienced side effects when using milk thistle, the following symptoms have been recorded:

• Nausea
• Diarrhoea
• Upset stomach
• Headache
• Mild skin reactions

Milk thistle might not be suitable for some people, and should be avoided under the following circumstances:

• If you are under eighteen years old
• If you are pregnant or breastfeeding
• If you have an allergy to any member of the daisy family

How Can I Use Milk Thistle?

If you are using prescribed medication or have an existing heath concern, you should always consult your supervising healthcare professional before using milk thistle or any herbal or nutritional supplement product. The most common method of taking milk thistle extract is to use milk thistle tablets or capsules. It is always important to follow the directions given on the label, and different products describe the potency of each tablet or capsule in different ways. Some may refer to the amount of silymarin that each tablet provides, while others might quote the equivalent value of the dried herb from which the concentrated extract was derived.