The medical use of milk thistle can be traced to more than 2000 years back, for the plant has long been known for its therapeutic effect on the gallbladder and liver. Even ancient philosophers Galen and Pliny praised the effectiveness of this herb in liver detoxification. Milk thistle seed contain silymarin, one of the most potent hepatoprotective substances known. This substance consists of a group of complex compounds called flavonolignands. Indeed, silymarin nurtures the liver like no other substance or nutrient ever known. It has potent antioxidant functions and restorative actions keeping the liver healthy and strong.
It is believed that early Christians dedicated the plant to Mary, which is why some call it Mary’s thistle, blessed thistle, or St. Mary’s thistle. During the 19th Century, the Eclectics used milk thistle for treating menstrual irregularities, varicose veins and congestion of kidneys, spleen and liver. Today, numerous scientific studies show that active substances in milk thistle guard the liver from the damaging effects of alcohol, viruses, toxins and certain drugs such as antidepressants, acetaminophen and antipsychotic drugs. Many expert herbalists suggest milk thistle for preventing and/or treating various liver disorders that include viral hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, fatty liver associated with alcohol abuse and liver damage. Silymarin is a powerful antioxidant, helping the liver rebuild itself. It is even more potent than Vitamins C and E. It has a mild laxative property on some people, but this digestive discomfort usually lasts 2-3 days.
A native in the Mediterranean region, milk thistle is a noxious weed that is generally considered detrimental in the wild. Based on Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board, milk thistle produces nearly 190 seeds for each flower and about 6000 seeds for each full-grown plant. For centuries, the seeds have been used greatly for alternative therapies and natural remedies. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, it was believed that emotional distraction and depression arose from liver malfunction. Thus, in the spring, milk thistle seeds were made into health tonics as relief from the “winter blues” and to aid people in venting pent-up feelings dwelling in the liver. Today, medical science has proven that these beliefs from the past had some amount of truth.
Many milk thistle formulations have standardized silymarin content containing about 70 – 80% of the plant’s active component. Some commonly available forms include liquid extract, capsules and tincture made from milk thistle seed. Another popular form of silymarin supplement is called silymarin phosphatidylcholine which, according to studies, is absorbed more easily compared to other forms. The substance phosphatidylcholine is an important element in cell membranes, allowing the silymarin to attach easily to cell membrane.
Is milk thistle seed safe? Although studies show its medicinal functions, it is very important to consult your doctor if you are undergoing any treatment for liver damage or cancer with milk thistle as part of the treatment plan. For people with healthy livers who want to maintain that organ’s health, it is considered safe by the American Cancer Society. Side effects such as reports of diarrhea or nausea are thought to be from outside contamination. Allergic reactions are rare but people who have a history of allergic reaction to chrysanthemum or ragweed should be cautious. Any signs of shortness of breath or hives must be reported to a healthcare provider and consumption of the herb should be stopped.