Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a modern herbal liver treatment that has been used for thousands of years. This helpful plant has many other names such as Mary thistle, Marian thistle, Saint Mary’s thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, holy thistle, Mediterranean milk thistle, Scotch thistle, and variegated thistle. A member of the Asteraceae family, it is related to echinacea, dandelions, sunflowers safflowers, lettuce, daisies, and ragweed.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about milk thistle centuries ago, around 50 AD.
The brilliant red to purple flowers bloom once or twice a year, depending on the variety. From its original roots in Southern Europe, this thorny plant spread through Asia to the rest of the world – to the point where some locales consider it to be a nuisance weed.
But the extract from milk thistle seeds contains silymarin which has anti-inflammatory properties that fight infections. Silymarin is also an antioxidant that protects healthy cells from free radical damage and strengthens the entire immune system.
Silymarin has been used to treat gallbladder problems and liver disease, prevent and treat cancer, and help treat poisoning from death cap mushrooms.
Liver conditions that respond well to milk thistle include cirrhosis, jaundice, and hepatitis. Overall, milk thistle promotes healthy liver function. A diseased liver may cause bile to back up, leading to jaundice, a medical condition hallmarked by yellow skin or eyes.
The liver is one of the biggest and most vital organs in the human body. This digestive gland is in charge of processing food waste as bile and passing it through the intestines for elimination.
Healthy liver function provides several essential services to the body:
• Detoxifies the blood
• Converts sugar into usable glucose
• Breaks down hemoglobin insulin and various hormones
• Stores vitamins, iron, and simple sugar
The liver is special because it is the only gland in the human body that can heal itself by replacing damaged tissue with new cells – at least, up to a point.
A Tylenol (acetaminophen) overdose can kill 50-60 percent of a liver’s cells over three or four days but repair itself completely in 30 days if no further complications arise.
Those complications happen either when regeneration is incomplete or hampered by scar tissue (called fibrosis) progressively developing within the liver. A damaging agent like a virus, drug, or alcohol continues to weaken the liver and prevents complete cell replacement.
Once scar tissue develops, it very hard to get rid of. Severe liver scarring is called cirrhosis. Left untreated, when a damaged liver may end-stage liver disease may be fatal.
As the fictional television Doctor House once quipped, “That’s why they call it a liver – you need one to live.”
Some research suggests that milk thistle may provide other health benefits:
• Lower cholesterol levels
• Reduce blood sugar levels
Symptoms of liver disease are often overlooked as simple fatigue or occasional itching. Many times, there are no signs at all that the liver has become inflamed and cells are dying, replaced by hard, fibrous scars that interfere with proper liver function.
In its early stages, liver disease can be cured completely. Left unchecked, the alternatives boil down to a new liver (replacement surgery – if you can find a donor liver that matches the recipient’s blood type) or death.
Even if you don’t suspect you have liver problems, you can ask your healthcare provider to order some blood tests to check your liver’s health.
It might be a good idea to add milk thistle supplements to prevent or treat repeated or extreme exposure to toxins (environmental, drugs, or alcohol).
Believe it or not, silymarin is the best selling herbal supplement in the United States for liver problems. Packaged as capsules, powders, and extracts (which provide the most potent dose per serving), formulas with high percentages of this healing plant invigorate and boost a damaged liver.
Some people eat the roots of milk thistles raw or cooked (par-boiled and roasted or boiled and buttered). In the spring, the tender shoots can be boiled and buttered. Prepare the spiny bracts on the flower head like a globe artichoke. Peel the stems and soak them overnight to remove bitterness and then stew them. Trim prickles from the leaves and boil like spinach add them raw to salads.
And let’s not forget delicious milk thistle tea.
Liver disease can be a thorny problem but silymarin from the common milk thistle lives up to its reputation as a detoxifying, healing tonic.