Spot a beautiful, spiky purple flower emerging from a rocky outcrop in the Mediterranean and you may be in luck. It might just be a milk thistle! Used for generations as a traditional remedy, this special plant can be eaten to help improve your overall wellness. So, if you can get past its few unfriendly spikes, you'll see how milk thistle's benefits extend to your liver, skin and more.April 27, 2022 4:59 pm January 14, 2019 11:34 am
Milk thistle origins
Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is a prickly plant which hails from the Mediterranean. It is rather beautiful, with a spiny globe topped with a spiky purple flower, and grows naturally on rocky slopes. The leaves of the plant are bright green, with white veins. A gentle white dusts the very edges of the flower, almost as if it has been sprinkled with icing sugar.
According to folklore, the white bands on the leaves originated when the Virgin Mary was escaping from Egypt. As she nursed, a drop of her breast milk fell on the plant, giving rise to the plant’s many religious nicknames. Among these are Mary thistle and Saint Mary’s thistle.
What is milk thistle used for?
Aside from its pleasant appearance and folk history, milk thistle is mainly used as a traditional remedy thanks to its impressive health benefits. Depending on the health effect you are looking for, you can take milk thistle in various ways. Firstly, you can eat the entire plant. The leaves and stalks can be eaten as vegetables, and the heads can be boiled like artichokes. Secondly, you can eat the seeds, which can be ground into milk thistle powder and are even used as a coffee substitute.
Milk thistle is a source of silymarin
The main reason why milk thistle is thought to be therapeutic is due to its high content of a compound called silymarin. This compound is an excellent antioxidant and there is plenty of research to suggest that it has other benefits, too. For example, some studies show that silymarin acts to block the reception of toxins in cells and reduce fibrosis.
Milk thistle seems to be particularly helpful when it comes to the liver. In fact, it is the most researched plant therapy for the healing of liver diseases.(1)
Silymarin is generally considered safe. However, further research is required and it is advisable to consult your doctor before taking silymarin while you are pregnant.
A blessing for the liver?
Milk thistle could be very helpful indeed for the liver. The detoxifying benefits of milk thistle have been passed down through the generations, and it is regularly used as a herbal remedy. But what does modern science think of milk thistle in liver health?
The news looks positive. Across various studies, milk thistle has been shown to be helpful in healing alcoholic liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatitis. It may also be useful in eliminating fatal toxins such as those produced by deadly mushrooms.(2)(3)(4)
However, in the interest of fairness, we should also say that other modern studies that did not produce the same results. More conclusive research is needed before any firm statements about the potential of milk thistle to detoxify the liver can be made.
Scientists also need to conduct more research to see how much milk thistle should be given to liver patients, and how long they should take it.
Milk thistle oil
When cold-pressed, milk thistle seeds produce an oil rich in linoleic acid. This is an essential omega-6 fatty acid which we can’t produce ourselves, so we need to obtain it through our diet.
The oil also boasts an abundance of vitamin E. This powerful antioxidant strengthens the skin and eyes, as well as helping to sustain the all-important immune system.
As with all vitamins, it is best to obtain vitamin E through the diet rather than via supplements. However, you can best obtain the full benefits of silymarin through the use of milk thistle powder rather than the oil.
"Milk thistle could be very helpful indeed for the liver. The detoxifying benefits of milk thistle have been passed down through the generations, and it is regularly used as a herbal remedy."
Milk thistle benefits for the brain and heart
Another way that milk thistle has traditionally been used is to treat disorders of the brain. For two thousand years, it has been administered to those with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, among others.
Silymarin has anti-inflammatory properties which may help protect brain from deterioration due to ageing.(5) Test tube and animal studies hint that silymarin does this by slowing oxidative damage in brain cells.(6)
A separate study found that it protected LDL cholesterol against oxidation, a leading cause of cardiovascula