Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum), particularly the seeds, has been used medicinally for over 2000 years.  Ancient writings recommend milk thistle not only for liver and gall bladder disorders, but for poisoning of all kinds including from toxic mushrooms and snakebites.

The modern use of milk thistle extract began in 1949 when animal studies showed that it could protect the liver against carbon tetrachloride poisoning.  Since then over 100 clinical trials have been performed on this miraculous medicine and it is carried in the Emergency Department pharmacies of most major European hospitals.  Milk thistle has successfully saved lives by reversing acetaminophen (Tylenol) and Amanita mushroom (one of the most deadly) poisoning.

Milk thistle is thought to work in three main ways: first as an antioxidant, “quenching” free radicals created from poisoning or environmental pollution.  Folks living in a smoggy area are well advised to take 600-750 mg daily of standardized milk thistle.  The best quality milk thistle is standardized to contain 70% by weight of the major ingredient silybin.  The other mechanisms of action are by protecting the cell membranes (most studied in liver cells) and by stimulating production of new liver cells (hepatocytes).

While the most prevalent uses of this potent plant medicine are for liver diseases (including all type of hepatitis, alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver toxicity) milk thistle is also useful as a venous tonic (protects and strengthens weak veins), including, for example, reducing bleeding tendency in folks with thin gums or nasal passage mucous membranes.

If your gums bleed when you brush your teeth, you may need more Vitamin C, and folic acid (1000 mcg daily) and CoQ10 (100-200 mg daily), but milk thistle will also help.  For nose bleeds, have your doctor check if you have an open blood vessel that needs cauterization (very easy and quick fix); otherwise extra Vitamin A (25,000 IUs daily) plus milk thistle may help reduce the sensitivity of nasal mucous membranes.

Milk thistle is also helpful to promote circulation, particularly in the pelvis, so would be good for many aspects of PMS (cravings, bloating, irritability).  Because one of milk thistle’s actions is “anti-fibrotic” it can help to improve blood flow through fibrous tissue, such as in fibrocystic breasts.  It is important to remember that fibrocystic (lumpy) breasts are completely normal — almost all women have them.  This does not put you at higher risk for breast disease or breast cancer.  However, fibrous breasts may be more tender premenstrually.  Vitamin E also helps with PMS breast tenderness.

Milk thistle is especially useful to women because it can reduce or prevent organ prolapse after childbirth.  Milk thistle also stimulates breast milk production (along with goat’s beard, fennel and hops).  Milk thistle is well tolerated and very safe, with no known contraindications.  It may produce darker or slightly looser stools, since it stimulates the flow of bile in the liver.  Furthermore, many chronic skin disorders are due to suboptimal liver clearance of toxins, “bad” fats and excess hormones.

Milk thistle is often key to resolving pesky skin problems ranging from acne to eczema to psoriasis.

One the most important uses of milk thistle in my office is to support patients going through chemotherapy.  While chemo can save lives, it is very toxic and can permanently damage heart, kidneys, brain, bone marrow and the liver.  Using milk thistle during and after chemo is not thought to undermine the effectiveness of the chemo drugs, and has been shown to reduce likelihood of permanent organ damage

Ogletree RL and Fischer RG “Physician’s and Pharmacists’s Guide to the Top 10 Scientifically Proven Natural Products”, Natural Source Digest, 1997

Tilgner S “Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth”, Wise Acres Press, 1999