MILK THISTLE SEED (Silybum marianum)

Latin: Silybum marianum

WHAT IT DOES: Milk thistle seed is sweet in taste and cooling in action.  It strongly protects, repairs and nourishes the liver, stomach and intestines.

RATING: Silver

SAFETY ISSUES: Milk thistle may speed clearance of pharmaceutical drugs.  Use cautiously (consult your physician) if taking specific drugs which require adequate blood levels, such as cardiac glycosides or cyclosporine.

• Concentrated standardized silymarin capsules (70-210 mg): one to two pills, two to three times per day
• 1:5 Tincture: 20-40 drops three times per day

Milk thistle is a true liver tonic, useful for treating numerous liver and gall bladder conditions including hepatitis and cirrhosis. It boosts protective antioxidant levels in the liver cells.  Milk thistle seeds are especially useful whenever chemicals, alcohol, chemotherapy, or medicines compromise the liver.  It reverses toxic liver damage and protects against hepatotoxic agents, including the deathcap toadstool.  (Amanita phalloides) It is used for this purpose in European hospitals.  It also stimulates protein synthesis in the liver, helping with the formation and growth of healthy new liver cells by selectively inhibiting certain inflammatory chemicals in liver cells (Thamsborg et al., 1996). This combination of effects means that this plant both removes inflammation and nourishes the liver tissue – in TCM terms it reduces liver heat and nourishes liver Yin.

At our clinic, I like to combine milk thistle seed with dandelion root, artichoke or turmeric root to create a simple yet potent liver tonic which heals, repairs, detoxifies and gently stimulates the liver.

It can also be used in patients who need larger amounts of herbs for serious problems, but are having difficulty processing them if the liver is overwhelmed.  When the liver is overwhelmed both herbs and drugs do not work properly or effectively.  Sometimes it creates various symptoms including but not limited to irritability, skin itching, heat sensations, digestive problems, bitter taste in the mouth, fatigue, and the tendency to react negatively or too quickly or slowly to many different types of drugs or herbs.

The benefits of milk thistle and other liver agents were well known by the Eclectic physicians.  Dr. Finley Elingwood’s 1919 classic, American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, describes in detail how milk thistle improves “general bilious conditions” such as jaundice, hepatic pain and swelling.  The Eclectics also used it to treat congestion in the spleen, kidneys and veins.  Its range of action is very wide.  

Research Highlights

• Milk thistle “has been shown to have clinical applications in the treatment of toxic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, ischemic injury, radiation toxicity, and viral hepatitis via its anti-oxidative, anti-lipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, immuno-modulating, and liver regenerating effects” (Luper, 1998).

• In a unique application of this herb, Russian scientists have studied the addition of milk thistle to bread to observe its effects on health and metabolism.  They reported that the addition of silybum marianum to bread products exerted a general restorative influence, increasing internal protection resources, capacity for work and vital activity (Gil’miiarov et al., 1998).

• In a double-blind study examining patients with liver cirrhosis due to alcohol, after five years there were almost three times as many deaths in the control group as in the group taking milk thistle (Benda et.  al, 1980).  A later study illustrated similar results (Ferenci P et al., 1989). 

• In a model designed to examine the effect of alcohol on pregnant women, a group of rat pups that received a diet consisting of 35% ethanol exhibit marked mental deficits, including poor social memory.  The group that received silymarin in addition to the ethanol scored much better, indicating a protective effect (Reid C et al., 1999).  

• Because it contains polyphenolic antioxidants, milk thistle may also have potential as a cancer preventative agent (Zhao et al., 1999).  Noting that most antioxidants afford protection against tumor promotion, in a complex study measuring several parameters, researchers reported the protective effect of silymarin on tumor promotion, indicating that it exhibited highly protective effects against tumor promotion (Lahiri-Chatterjee et al., 1999).
• Milk thistle was found to have an anti-cancer effect on both breast and prostate cancer (Zi X et al., 1998).  It also protects the kidneys against toxicity from the chemotherapeutic agent cisplatin in animal models, without reducing its effectiveness against cancer (Bokemeyer et al., 1996, Gaedeke et al., 1996).  It also protects against the kidney toxicity of cyclosporine, an anti-rejection drug (Zima.  et al., 1998).

• Studies have also shown a protective effect of silymarin on stomach and intestinal membranes (Alarcon de la Lastra et al., 1995).  This may be due to a selective increase in total glutathione content in the liver, intestine and stomach found in animal studies (Valenzuela A et al., 1989).