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Milk Thistle: An Ancient Remedy

Updated on October 16, 2009

Milk Thistle has been used since early Roman times. It is a small plant which has several important effects that have been identified in recent studies.

In the days of the Roman Empire, there was a plant used if a person had problems with "bile" or other liver disorders. It was native to the Mediterranean region, and Pliny described it in his writings. This plant is a member of the aster  family, and is still in use today. Its name is Milkthistle, or silybum marianum. It is a tall plant, with white-veined deep glossy green leaves covered with prickles, and a purple flower that resembles the thistle flower. Its name comes  from its white, milky-colored sap, and the legend that the plant grew from droplets of the Virgin Mary's milk that sprayed onto the ground when she was nursing the Christ child.

It is found in modern times in temperate zones around the world. Its uses over the centuries have been many. The plant has been used to encourage milk production in nursing mothers, as a food source, with the stalks and heads being  boiled and eaten like parsnips, and the leaves eaten in salads or steamed like spinach.

But it has been best known for its use in treating liver disorders. The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin , and is extracted from the seeds of the plant. Silymarin is actually three different bioflavonoids: silybin,  silydianin, and silychristin.

Most forms of Silymarin available now are an extract made from the seeds, and contain 80% silymarin; a usual dose would be between 300 mg and 600 mg daily according to its distributors.

The action of silymarin on liver cells is allegedly three-fold. It is believed to alter the outer membrane of liver cells in order to help prevent the entrance of toxic substances; to assist in the stimulation of the regenerative  capacity of the liver by increasing ribosome synthesis; and to provide a level of antioxidant effect, which can be of benefit in clearing free radicals from the liver.

In Europe, studies have been done on the protective effects of silymarin, some using a form of the medication called Legalon. These studies apparently show some protective effect, although the conclusions also show that it cannot reverse  severe cirrhosis. Another drawback of the studies were small numbers of participants (less than 100) and short term studies (four years or less).

In Germany silymarin is used for cases of amanita mushroom (Death's Cap mushroom) poisoning, which can cause severe liver failure, and it has been known to exert protective effects from the toxins in this mushroom. It is also  occasionally prescribed for protection from alcoholism and cirrhotic liver disease. There is ongoing debate on whether silymarin exerts a protective effect against liver destruction, or if it also has a healing role.

The plant has been shown to prevent the depletion of glutathione (GSH) in the liver to a minor degree when there is exposure to toxins. Glutathione is an important substance in detoxification from exposure to poisons and is responsible  for some of Milk Thistle's protective action.

Although you should never rely on any substance which is not approved by the FDA for a particular ailment and duly prescribed by a physician, there is sufficient encouraging information being discovered about Milk Thistle which  definitely warrants further examination.

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    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Glad to hear it! I'd love to see much more research done on this substance as so far, the clinical evidence is rather flimsy.

    • Patti Ann profile image

      Patti Ann 

      8 years ago from Florida

      Good info - I have a friend who's liver did improve from taking milk thistle and a few other herbs.

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