Milk Thistle (Sylbum marianum )

The medicinal use of milk thistle can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome.  Today researchers around the world have completed more than 300 scientific studies that attest to the benefits of this herb, particularly in the treatment of liver ailments.

Common uses:

  •        Protects 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 to clear psoriasis.

Forms : capsule, tablet, tincture.

What it is.

Know by its botanical name, Silybum marianum, as well as by its main active ingredient, sylmarin, milk thistle is a member of the sunflower family, with purple flowers and milky white leaf veins.  The herb blooms from June to August, and the shiny black seeds used for medicinal purposes are collected at the end of the summer.

What it does.

Milk thistle is one of the most extensively studied and document 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 know as silymarin, which constitutes 4% to 6% of the ripe seeds.

Major benefits.

Among the benefits of milk thistle is its ability to fortify the liver, one of the body’s most important organs.  The liver processes nutrients, including fats and other foods.  In addition it neutralises, or detoxifies many drugs, chemical pollutants and alcohol.  Milk thistle helps to enhance and strengthen the liver by preventing the depletion of glutathione, an amino acid-like compound that is essential to the detoxifying process.  Moreover, studies have shown that it can increase glutathione concentration by up to 35%.  Milk thistle is an effective gatekeeper, limiting the number of toxins which the liver processes at any given time.  The herb is also a powerful antioxidant.  Even more potent than vitamins C and E, it helps to prevent damage from highly reactive free-radical molecules.  It promotes the regeneration of new liver cells which replace old and damaged one.  Milk thistle eases a range of serious liver ailments, including viral infections (hepatitis) and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).  The herb is so potent that it is sometimes given in an injectable form in hospital resuscitation rooms 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 or those recovering from alcohol abuse.

 Additional benefits.

In cancer patients, milk thistle limits the potential for drug-induced damage to the liver after chemotherapy, and it speeds recovery by hastening the 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 to process the hormone oestrogen, 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 gall bladder and into the intestine, where it helps to digest fats.

How to take it.

Dosage :  The recommended dose for milk thistle is up to 200mg of standardised extract (containing 70% to 80% silymarin) three times a day; lower doses are often very effective.  It is often combined with other herbs and nutrients, such as dandelion, choline, methionine and inositol.  This combination may be labelled ‘liver complex’ or ‘lipotropic factors’.  For proper dosage follow the instructions on the packet.

Guidelines for use : Milk thistle extract seems most effective when taken between meals.  However, if you want to take the herb itself, a tablespoon of ground milk thistle can be sprinkled over breakfast cereal once daily.  Milk thistle’s benefits may be noticeable within a week or two.  The herb appears to be safe, even for pregnant and breastfeeding 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.

Buying guide.

To ensure you are getting the right dose buy products made from standardised extracts that contain 70% to 80% silymarin, milk thistle’s active ingredient. Studies show that preparations containing milk thistle bound to phosphatidylcholine, a constituent of the natural fatty compound lecithin, may be better absorbed than ordinary milk thistle.

When taking milk thistle to alleviate liver damage from excessive alcohol, avoid alcohol based tinctures as they can weaken the resolve to break the addiction.

Recent Findings.

Milk thistle may be a weapon in the fight against skin cancer.  Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found that when the active ingredient, silymarin, was applied to the skin of mice, 75% fewer skin tumours resulted after the mice were exposed to ultra violet radiation.  More studies are needed to see if it has a similar effect in humans.

Final fact.

The components of milk thistle are not soluble in water, so teas made from the seeds usually contain few of the herb’s liver-protecting ingredients.

11 Replies to “Milk Thistle (Sylbum marianum )”

  1. Hi all! Not sure on the age of this thread but for anyone who does take milk thistle I would recommend against it. I landed up in hospital due to toxicity and one of the factors was Milk Thistle. (First and second phase issues). I was then advised to never take it. Rather an alternative supplement called N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) instead. No doubt you’ll do some reading on it. 🙂 This has done amazing things for me! And having been living with GS for over 20 years now I’ve done my fair share of trials! Hope this helps anyone else searching out there! All the best.

  2. Please read the following paper
    Effects of Herbal Supplements on Drug Glucuronidation. Review of Clinical, Animal, and In Vitro Studies (Planta Med 2011; 77(4): 311-321), which claims that milk thistle is an inhibitor of UGT1A!, at least in vitro.

  3. Been a GS sufferer for many years and just found your website – very helpful. My GS has just flared up again and thought I might try taking some Milk Thistle to see if that helps. My liver area is just aching and am suffering from constant indigestion. Have been looking at all the Milk Thistle products how do I know which ones will be OK so many seem to contain other ingredients???

    1. Hi there, so long as it contains a certain amount of the effective ingredient ‘sylmarin’ you should experience any of the ‘benefits’ see here for more info on how it may work: (as I’m not medically qualified I have to suggest and not say definitively I’m afraid!). A brand I’ve used is Solgar, which isn’t cheap, but is committed to producing excellent quality, or Viridian which are a leading range of ethcial vitamins with everything vegetarian. Hope that helps!

    2. I have Gilberts Syndrome and had to quit eating gluten. I suffered from really bad stomach pain etc
      Since I quit gluten.. ( all forms of gluten incl beer. Etc) no more pain. Best thing I ever did to help manage this syndrome. Also found going lactose free helps. Hope this might help.

  4. I started taking milk thistle for the gilberts syndrome and also found it helps with the pain of IBS not sure how but although I still get occasionally bloated if I take milk thistle I’m not in pain, which is a small miracle when I have suffered for many years.

    1. I haven’t heard of adverse reactions to Milk Thistle. I’ve only read that it is one of the most benign of substances and there is no dangerous amount to take. But I’m not a medical professional, I can only share the information I come across.

  5. I read recently online that milk thistle is very safe taken for up to 4 years but that one shouldnt go beyond that. Have you heard that or…? I have been taking it for over 4 years but have now stopped because of what I read, but I cant find where I read it again now and I miss milk thistle because my liver aches when I dont take it. Would much appreciate any thoughts, advice or experiences to share… Thanks for this site. I just found it! Amanda

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