Milk Thistle

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Herbal Monograph

Herb:   Milk Thistle Seed   (Silybum marianum; Compositae)

Other Names:    marian thistle    (2)

Character/Energetics:   sweet, bitter, cool      (6)

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:    liver, spleen   (6)

Part used:   the seeds    (8)                                                                                                     

Aerial parts, seeds.    (15)

Identification & Harvesting:    Plant grows from 2-5′ high;  erect stem;  alternate leaves.  Lower leaves are indented and feather-like;  upper leaves are lanceolate and clasping.  There are white spots along the ribs of the leaf and yellow thorns at the margin.  Inflorescences are large, solitary, purple nodding composite flower heads.  Fruit is brown, spotted and glossy with a white tuft.  Indigenous to Europe.    (2)

The mature achenes (seed heads) are cut and stored in a warm place. After a few days, tap the heads and collect the seeds.     (8)    

             Silybum marianum, or milk thistle, is a stout, annual or biennial plant found in    dry rocky soils in southern and western Europe and some parts of the United States.        The branched stem grows 1-3 feet high and bears dark green, shiny leaves with spiny,    scalloped edges that are markedly streaked with white along the veins. The solitary flower heads are reddish-purple with bracts ending in sharp spines. Flowering season is from June to August.  The seeds, fruit, and leaves are used for medicinal purposes.   (23) 

See “Milk Thistle–The Liver Herb,” (booklet) by Christopher Hobbs,  pgs. 8-9

A member of the aster family found throughout Europe.  Naturalized in eastern North America and California.    (61)

Active Constituents:    Flavonoids incl. apigenin-, luteolin- and kaempferol-glycosides;  beta-sitosterol;  polyynes incl. silymarin (found only in seed case);  silymarin (flavonal lignan mixture), chiefly silybin A and B (mixture known as silibinin), isosilybin A and B, silychristin, silydianin;  flavonoids;  fatty oils.  (2)

flavonoid (silymarin), amines (thyramine and histamine)…    (6)

flavones silybin, silydianin and silychristin; essential oil; bitter principle; mucilage.     (8)    

S. marianum contains silymarin, a mixture of flavanolignans, consisting chiefly of silybin, silydianin, and silychristine. The concentration of silymarin is highest in the fruit, but it is also found in the seeds and leaves. Silibin is the silymarin component that yields the greatest degree of biological activity.   (23)

Actions:    Acts as an antagonist in many experimental liver-damage models;  in particular death-cap mushroom poisoning.  The activity of silymarin is based on two mechanisms:  first, it alters the sturcture of the outer cell membrane of the hepatocytes to prevent penetration of the poison;  second, it stimulates the action of nucleolar polymerase A, resulting in an increase in ribosomal protein synthesis, and thus stimulates the regenerative ability of the liver and the formation of new hepatocytes.  Herb is also a cholagogue.    (2)

astringent, alterive, hemostatic    (6)

    cholagogue, galactogogue, demulcent.   (8)     

Encourages liver cell renewal and repair in degenerative conditions, e.g., alcoholism.  Promotes milk flow, demulcent, antidepressant.    (15)

Shown to alter the cell structure of the outer liver membrane which prevents toxic chemicals from entering the liver and stimulates the liver’s own capacity to generate new cells.  Silymarin further protects the liver by scavenging harmful oxygen radicals.    (61)

Conditions & Uses:   The seeds of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) make one of the best liver tonics in the vegetable kingdom, effective even against the most virulent hepato-toxin, the Amanita phalloides mushroom. Injections of extract of silybum seeds were given to a number of patients in Europe who had been poisoned with this deadly mushroom. The rate of recovery was nearly 100%.   (6)

As the name of this herb shows, it is an excellent promoter of milk secretion and is perfectly safe to be used by all breast-feeding mothers. Milk Thistle can also  be used to increase the secretion and flow of bile from the liver and gall-bladder and as such it may be used in all problems associated with the gall-bladder.   (8)         

Liver disorders, hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, psoriasis.

Perhaps the most widespread folk use of (milk thistle) has been in assisting the nursing mother in the production of milk. It was also used in Germany for curing jaundice and biliary derangements. It is interesting to note that the discovery of the liver-protecting compound silymarin in milk thistle was not the result of extensive pharmacological screening but of investigation of silybum’s empirical effects in liver disorders.

Milk thistle’s ability to prevent liver destruction and enhance liver function is largely a result of silymarin’s inhibition of the factors that are responsible for liver damage, coupled with its ability to stimulate the growth of new liver cells to replace old damaged cells. The liver can be damaged as a result of some toxins producing or acting as free radicals….highly reactive molecules that can damage other molecules…Silymarin prevent free radical damage by acting as an antioxidant…many times more potent than vitamin E….also shown to increase the glutathione content of the liver by over 35% in healthy subjects. Glutathione is responsible for…increased capacity for detoxification reactions.

…Perhaps the most impressive of silymarin’s protective effects is against the severe poisoning effects of Amanita phalloides (the deathcap or toadstool mushroom), an effect that has long been recognized in folk medicine. Ingestion of A. phalloides or its toxins causes severe poisoning and, in approximately 30% of victims, death….

Perhaps the most interesting effect of milk thistle’s components on the liver is their ability to stimulate protein synthesis. This action results in an increase  in the production of new liver cells to replace the old ones. Interestingly, silymarin does not have a stimulatory  effect on malignant liver tissue. From the hepatic actions described, it is apparent that S. marianum and, more specifically, silymarin exerts both a protective and restorative role.

In human studies, silymarin has been shown to have positive effects in treating several types of liver disease, including cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis, fatty infiltration of the liver (chemical- and alcohol-induced fatty liver), subclinical cholestasis of pregnancy, and cholangitis and pericholangitis. The therapeutic effect of silymarin in these disorders has been confirmed by histological, clinical and laboratory data.

In one of the first extensive double-blind clinical trials investigating silymarin’s therapeutic effect in liver disorders, silymarin demonstrated impressive results on 129 patients with toxic metabolic liver damage, fatty degeneration of the  liver of various origin, or chronic hepatitis, as compared with a control group made up of 56 patients. The results might have been even more impressive if the study had lasted longer than 35 days.

A follow-up study of patients with liver damage due to alcohol, diabetes, viruses, or toxic exposure demonstrated even more striking results….Highly significant results were (also) obtained in bromsulphalein retention, SGPT, iron, and cholesterol levels. There were remarkable tissue restorative effects, as biopsies showed. Upon completion of silymarin therapy, the liver showed restitution of normal cell structure in even severely damaged livers. These effects on the tissue level correlated well with improvements in blood chemistry.

The therapeutic effects of silymarin have been duplicated in other double-blind clinical studies. Silymarin is particularly effective in protecting against alcohol- and chemical-induced liver damage, and some evidence suggests that it is also of value in viral hepatitis.

Silymarin in psoriasis

Correction of abnormal liver function is indicated in the treatment of psoriasis. Silymarin has been reported to be of value in the treatment of psoriasis, perhaps due to its ability to inhibit the synthesis of leukotrienes and improve liver function.

The connection between the liver and psoriasis relates to one of the liver’s basic tasks: filtering the blood. Psoriasis has been shown to be linked to high levels of circulating endotoxins, such as those found in the cell walls of gut bacteria….   (23)

Used to treat liver disorders for millennia.  John Gerard considerd it “the best remedy that grows against all melancholy [liver] diseases.”  Many studies confirm the effectiveness and safety of silymarin, the active principle, for treating liver disease.  German authorities allow milk thistle to be used for chronic inflammatory liver disorders such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and fatty infiltration caused by alcohol or other toxins.  Can also help prevent liver damage when taken before exposure to toxins.    (61)

Combinations:    Use as a simple or add vervain, dandelion root, or globe artichoke and 5 drops goldenseal as additional liver tonics.    (15)

Precautions: Alcohol-based extracts are virtually always contraindicated due to the need to administer relatively high amounts of alcohol to obtain an adequate dose of silymarin….

Silymarin preparations are widely used medications in Europe, where a considerable body of evidence points to a very low toxicity. When used at high doses for short periods of time, silymarin given by various routes to mice, rats, rabbits, and dogs has shown no toxic effects. Studies in rats receiving silymarin for protracted periods have also documented a complete lack of toxicity.

As silymarin possesses choleretic activity, it may produce a looser stool as a result of increased bile flow and secretion. If higher doses are used, it may be appropriate to use bile-sequestering fiber compounds (e.g., guar gum, pectin, psyllium, or oat bran) to prevent mucosal irritation and loose stools. Because of silymarin’s lack of toxicity, long-term use is feasible when necessary.      (23)

No serious side effects, contraindications or drug interactions have been reported.  Loose stools may occur during the first few days of use.    (61)

Tincturing Process:



Dosage:    Average daily dose is 12-15 g. dried herb, or an equivalent 200-400 mg of silymarin, calculated as silybin.    (2)

Infusion: pour a cup of boiling water onto 1 teaspoon of the dried leaves and let infuse for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk 3x daily.

                 Tincture: take  1 — 2 ml of the tincture 3x daily.       (8)    

      The standard dose of S. marianum is based on its silymarin content (70-210 mg three times a day) which is why standardized extracts are preferred.    (23)

For standardized capsules, take the equivalent of 140 mg silymarin 3 x daily, and reduce after 6 weeks to 90 mg 3 x daily.  Steep 2-3 tsp dried powdered seed in 1 cup hot water for 10-15 min.  Tincture 10-25 drops up to 3 x daily.    (61)

General Notes:         



(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), p. 1138-39

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., pgs. 266-267

(8) The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, pg. 215

(15) The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody, pgs. 154-55, 181

(23) The Healing Power of Herbs by Michael T. Murray, N.D., pgs. 67-72

(61) 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster, pgs. 136-37