Milk Thistle Benefits, Uses & History

Looking to learn more about the natural world and herbal medicine? You’re in the right place because we like to talk about all things herbs and herbology here!

As you may or may not already know, herbology is the study of natural herbs and plants, to treat health and wellbeing problems.

Today’s herb of choice is the ‘Milk Thistle’, a herbaceous perennial plant that consists of a prickly flower head and deep purple tubular flowers, well-known for its health benefits and has a long-standing history of use as an edible plant.

Milk Thistle benefits, uses & history

If you’re interested to find out more, this article will delve deep into the history, uses, benefits and possible side effects of ingesting the herb for food and medicine.

Keep reading to find out, maybe Milk Thistle can work for you!

What is Milk Thistle?

Milk Thistle is a member of the sunflower family, ‘Asteraceae’, the largest family of flowering plants.

The herb, also known as Silybum Marianum, is a perennial plant that is popularly extracted for use as a herbal remedy, believed to have a number of medicinal benefits and properties.

Its native home is the Mediterranean region but over time it has also found home throughout Central Europe, North and South America, and Southern Australia as it prefers growing in sunny, but sheltered areas.

It blooms from June to August and at the end of the summer, its shiny black seeds are at their ripest and are harvested to be used for their medicinal benefits.

The seeds contain a compound referred to as silymarin which is thought to have several benefits including anti-inflammatory effects and antioxidants.

The herb itself is typically tall and prickly in appearance and is native to the Mediterranean region, although it can be found growing all over the world.

It can often be seen to be up to 10 feet tall and grows deep purple flowers, hard-skinned fruits from which the beneficial seeds are extracted, and large leaves with noticeable white blotches.

What is the history of Milk Thistle?

Milk Thistle has been around and used for generations, and records of humans using the herb dates back to sometime around IV century BC. 

As the name alludes, Milk Thistle has traditionally been used to encourage milk-production in breastfeeding mothers.

It is also said that traditional stories suggest the plant’s white, blotchy leaves are the result of the Virgin Mary’s dripping breast milk falling onto the leaves, another likely contributor to the herb’s interesting name.

The herb is also referred to by other names over the globe such as ‘Saint Mary’s thistle’, ‘Scotch thistle’, ‘holy thistle’, ‘variegated thistle’, and ‘da ji’ in traditional Chinese medicine.

It was commonly used by ancient Greeks, particularly as a way to protect the liver. In fact, documentation of its value as an edible plant dates back as far as Theophrastus, a plant biologist during IV century BC, who documented the herb’s value.

It has an extensive history of use as an edible plant and is first documented in the 1st century AD for its use in promoting a healthy liver.

In 1152, Hildegard von Bingen was the first woman to write about the herb and detail its many health benefits.

During the middle ages the plant’s leaves and stalks were common additions to salads and soups among other dishes and was widely enjoyed as a vegetable similar to cabbage. People also cooked the heads similarly to artichokes.

In 1597, John Gerard, an English herbalist wrote about Milk Thistle’s ability to treat melancholy diseases.

Fast-forward to around 1650 and the English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper often praised the herb for its medicinal qualities, particularly in supporting the function of the liver and spleen and was particularly good at combating jaundice.

In more recent times, Milk Thistle has been incorporated into medicine to treat liver-related illnesses and provides other health benefits including as a weight loss aid and immune system booster.

Research into the herb is ongoing and likely will be used in studies and documented in journals for the rest of time.

What is Milk Thistle used for?

Milk Thistle has a long-standing reputation for treating problems of the liver and other health benefits, which, as we’ve mentioned, has been documented and tested for centuries.

The herb is most commonly used as an herbal remedy due to its (believed) detoxifying abilities, particularly good for treating liver issues.

When used as a herbal remedy, it is listed as Milk Thistle extract, which consists of about 70% concentrated silymarin, believed to contain lots of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.

While in modern times, the herb is most commonly found in pill or capsule form to be used as medicine, it can also be used for food as the leaves, buds, stalks, seeds and roots are edible, and has been cultivated for food since the middle ages.

What are the possible benefits of Milk Thistle?

There are many benefits believed to be associated with using Milk Thistle as a herbal remedy.

As already mentioned, the main benefit is to treat liver issues, but there are actually several other benefits thought to be attributed to the herb.

These benefits include treating gallbladder issues, stomach upset, diabetes, depression and even some cancers.

That being said, these benefits are not based on scientific findings, but they are based on years of trial and error, so do take this information as factual.

Let’s take a deeper look at the benefits of this versatile herb.

  • Liver protection/ detoxification/ treatment

The most well-known health benefit of using Milk Thistle is liver protection, detoxification and treatment.

Common liver conditions it is often used to treat include cirrhosis and hepatitis as some evidence suggests silymarin has been known to improve liver function due to its detoxifying effects keeping toxins from staying in the liver.

It is not a certified medical treatment, though.

When used to treat hepatitis cases, Milk Thistle is backed by several surveys and journals and some even believe Milk Thistle has a placebo effect on patients, improving symptoms of Hepatitis.

Many people also believe the herb can also reduce inflammation of the liver created by various liver diseases and can protect the liver from toxins caused by alcohol abuse and fatty liver disease.

Come also use the herbal remedy to treat (alongside other treatments) liver cancer.

  • Brain health and protection

Research suggests Milk Thistle, specifically the silymarin it contains, has been traditionally used as a natural treatment for various neurological ailments such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s for thousands of years.

Plus, studies find Milk Thistle may be able to reduce amyloid plaques within the brains of animals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, therefore the herbal treatment could be able to do the same in humans with the disease.

It is also thought that Milk Thistle’s anti-inflammatory effects can help towards preventing brain function decline that comes with age.

  • Lowers blood sugar in Diabetes patients

Many feel that Milk Thistle has some similarities to medications used to treat type 2 diabetes in that it appears to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity in sufferers.

The taking of silymarin (found in the seeds of Milk Thistle), is often linked to a reduction in blood sugar levels, more so than a placebo.

Other studies have concluded that antioxidant-containing silymarin can help reduce diabetes-related complications such as kidney disease.

  • Lowers cholesterol levels

Milk Thistle may be able to reduce cholesterol levels, lowering a person’s chance of developing heart disease.

So far, results have only stemmed from use in patients with diabetes so there is no evidence that it would have the same effect on those without.

  • Prevents gallstones

Milk Thistle is believed to support the digestive system and endocrine in the production of enzymes and bile as well as purify the body and cleanse the blood.

As a result, the gallbladder, spleen and kidneys are able to function properly, thereby preventing kidney stones and gallstones.

  • Regulates hormones

Going off the belief that Milk Thistle promotes proper liver function, the liver helps to balance hormones including oestrogen so, by protecting your liver through taking Milk Thistle could thereby also support proper hormone health.

  • Anticancer effects

The herb’s antioxidant properties have been said to have some anticancer effects, making it a useful supplement to take alongside cancer treatment.

  • Boost breastmilk production

It has been documented for hundreds of years that Milk Thistle has breast milk production properties as a result of its hormonal effects.

That being said, it is also not recommended not to take Milk Thistle when pregnant because there is not enough data looking at the possible side effects the herb can have on pregnancies

How is Milk Thistle taken?

milk thistle

Milk Thistle is typically taken in the form of tablets or capsules, as a powder or even in tea. You can also add it to other drinks and even food.

It has been known to be used in seasonings, soups, salads, juices and smoothies, and more.

You can use it in its powder form to sprinkle into dishes, or you can even use the leaves, seeds, flower buds, stalks and roots.

Here’s what you need to know if you plan to eat Milk Thistle:

The leaves – simply wash first, and you’ll be able to eat the leaves raw in salads etc. and is often used as an alternative to foods like spinach.

The flower buds – these can be added to meals in a similar way to artichokes. Simply boil them until soft enough to enjoy

The stalks – again, like the flower buds, the stalks can be boiled and added to a number of dishes like soups and stews

The seeds – as mentioned, the seeds contain silymarin which is where most of the herbs health benefits originate. You can grind them down to a powder to be added to soups, teas and smoothies etc. and sometimes the seeds are also used to make oil.

The roots – these can be eaten raw and sliced or chopped up into a salad or cold dishes. You can also boil and roast them to put in whatever dishes you like.

Is it safe to ingest Milk Thistle?

It is generally thought that ingesting Milk thistle orally is safe and side effects occur in only 1% of people taking them.

If you were to suffer side effects from taking Milk Thistle they would be minimal, including stomach upsets, diarrhea, bloating and nausea.

There are some instances where taking Milk Thistle isn’t advised, either because of possible reactions or because there is too little knowledge of what might happen if it was to be ingested.

So, you shouldn’t take Milk Thistle if you are:

  • Suffering with hormone sensitive conditions such as breast cancer because Milk Thistle can have estrogenic side effects that could actually worsen these conditions
  • Currently pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future because there is not enough research into the possible side effects of Milk Thistle in pregnancy
  • Living with type 1 Diabetes because Milk Thistle is thought to have the ability to lower blood sugar which would put those living with type 1 Diabetes at risk of too low blood sugar

Other possible side effects include:

  • Allergic reactions – if you are allergic to plants in the aster family, daisies, kiwi or artichokes, you are likely to be allergic to Milk Thistle too
  • Negative reactions to other drugs – certain medications such as some antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, Statin drugs and more so make sure you check with a medical professional if you are taking regular medication, that it’s safe to take Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle has been praised for centuries for its health and wellbeing benefits and adding the herb to your food or by taking it in its pill or capsule form is a great way to incorporate the health-boosting herb into your everyday life. 

Just remember to be cautious with your usage at first to ensure you don’t have a reaction to consuming it.

If you do notice any reaction, stop use immediately and consult your doctor.