Milk Thistle

What Is It

Known by its botanical name, Silybum marianum, as well as by its principal active ingredient, silymarin, milk thistle is a member of the sunflower family. The purple flowers and milky white leaf veins of this herb, which early settlers brought from Europe to North America, are a common sight along the East Coast and in California; the plant also grows as a weed in other parts of the United States and around the world. It blooms from June through August, and the shiny black seeds used for medicinal purposes are collected at the end of summer.

What Does It Do

Milk thistle is one of the most extensively studied and documented herbs in use today. Scientific research continues to validate its healing powers, particularly for the treatment of liver-related disorders. Most of its effectiveness stems from a complex of three liver-protecting compounds, collectively known as silymarin, which constitutes 4% to 6% of the ripe seeds.

Common Uses

  • Protects the liver from toxins, including drugs, poisons, and chemicals.
  • Treats liver disorders, such as cirrhosis and hepatitis.
  • Reduces liver damage from excessive alcohol.
  • Aids in the treatment and prevention of gallstones.
  • Helps clear psoriasis.

Major Benefits

Among the most important benefits of milk thistle is its ability to fortify the liver, which is one of the body’s most important organs, second in size only to the skin. The liver processes nutrients, many drugs, chemical pollutants, and alcohol. Milk thistle helps enhance and strengthen this vital organ by preventing the depletion of glutathione, an amino acid-like compound that is essential to the detoxifying process. What’s more, studies show milk thistle can increase glutathione concentration by up to 35%.This herb is also an effective gatekeeper, limiting the number of toxins the liver processes at any given time.

Milk thistle is a powerful antioxidant as well. Even more potent than vitamins C and E, it helps prevent damage from highly reactive free-radical molecules. Furthermore, it promotes the regeneration of healthy, new liver cells, which replace old and damaged ones. Milk thistle eases a range of serious liver ailments, including viral infections (hepatitis) and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).This herb is so potent that it’s sometimes given in an injectable form in the emergency room to combat the life-threatening, liver-obliterating effects of poisonous mushrooms. In addition, because excessive alcohol depletes glutathione, milk thistle can aid in protecting the livers of alcoholics and those recovering from alcohol abuse.

Additional Benefits

In cancer patients, milk thistle limits the potential for drug-induced damage to the liver after chemotherapy treatments, and it speeds recovery by hastening removal of toxic substances that can accumulate in the body. The herb also reduces the inflammation and may slow the skin cell proliferation associated with psoriasis. It may be useful for endometriosis (the most common cause of infertility in women) because it helps the liver process the hormone estrogen, which at high levels can make pain and other symptoms worse. Finally, milk thistle can be beneficial in preventing or treating gallstones by improving the flow of bile, the cholesterol-laden digestive juice that travels from the liver through the gallbladder and into the intestine, where it helps to digest fats.

How To Take It


The recommended dose for milk thistle is up to 250 mg of standardized extract (containing 70% to 80% silymarin) three times a day. It is often combined with other herbs and nutrients, such as dandelion, choline, methionine, and inositol. This combination may be labeled “liver complex” or “lipotropic factors” (“lipotropic” refers to the formula’s fat-metabolizing properties; it prevents the buildup of fatty substances in the liver). For proper dosage, follow package directions.

Guidelines For Use:

Milk thistle seems most effective when taken between meals. Its benefits may be noticeable within a week or two, though long-term treatment is often needed for chronic conditions. The herb appears to be safe, even for pregnant and lactating women. No interactions with other medications have been noted.

Possible side effects

Virtually no side effects have been attributed to the use of milk thistle, which is considered one of the safest herbs on the market. However, in some people it may have a slight laxative effect for a day or two.

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