Milk Thistle: An Internal Spring Cleaning

Some of you enjoyed the series on fasting and  detoxing a couple of months ago – maybe you even got inspired to get cleansing.

Now that spring is finally here, many of us are thinking again of cleansing and detoxing our systems. It just goes with the energy of spring – that’s why many cultures practice fasting and internal cleanses around this time of year.

Maybe you’re not up for a fast or cleansing diet right now – or maybe you took care of that back in January. You can still benefit from gently cleansing the liver with an herbal supplement.

Our poor livers have a tough job filtering out all the toxins that are constantly coming in – and not just from what we eat and drink. In our modern world pollution is everywhere, from car exhaust to radiation, and our livers have to do the job of processing these and (hopefully) maintaining a healthy homeostasis despite the onslaught.

Hands down – the most recognized herb for supporting and cleansing the liver is milk thistle. So today I thought I’d post an article I wrote years ago for our local newspaper, the Arcata Eye.

Here’s the updated and slightly edited version:

Some Thistles Are Friends

When we think of thistles, we usually imagine prickly, unfriendly plants to avoid. Yet the artichoke is a thistle that satisfies the palate with its succulent flavor, and we find it in grocery stores as a spring delicacy.

So not all thistles were put on this planet solely to stave off human interference in their habitat.

Another example of a friendly thistle is the distinctive milk thistle plant. Peppering the roadsides and fields throughout North America, parts of Europe and North Africa, this plant can grow up to three feet tall. Although it is said to thrive under rocky conditions, I notice it seems to like it quite well in our damp moist climate on the North Coast of California.

Deep green, glossy and thick, milk thistle’s giant leaves are mottled with white streaks and edged with sharp prickles. A brilliant purple spiky flower head crowns the striking plant.

Although considered a weed, this plant adds an attractive and unusual look to the garden, and it’s easy to keep in check because it only spreads by reseeding.

Where’s the ‘Milk’?

The botanical name for milk thistle is Silybum marianum. The name ‘marianum’  refers to an old legend that tells how the leaf veins of the milk thistle turned white after it had been touched by a drop of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk. In Germany the plant is often depicted in religious symbols with the Holy Virgin.

I can only imagine some medieval priest or bishop thinking this one up, to convince his flock of the power of God over nature. It must have worked, because references to the Virgin Mary’s breast milk and this plant are are all over the old herbal texts.

The steamed leaves (with spines removed!) are quite tasty. In centuries past the young stalks were considered to be “one of the best boiling salads that is eaten, surpassing the finest cabbage.” Personally I don’t think the comparison to cabbage is saying much, but I guess back in the 18th century cabbage was  more of a delicacy than it is today.

Milk thistle’s primary use today is to support and detoxify the liver. The shiny dark brown seeds can be ground and sprinkled on food. They add a nutty though slightly bitter flavor, and this is a great way to get the medicinal benefits of the seeds.

All parts of the plant have been used as both food and medicine for more than 2000 years –  with virtually no reports of toxicity, aside from a mild laxative effect in some patients. Modern herbalists use only the seeds for therapeutic benefits.

Milk thistle has been intensively studied over the last thirty years; in fact it is one of the most researched plants in herbal medicine. Extensive laboratory and clinical data have confirmed the beneficial action of milk thistle on the liver. Entire books have been written on this one plant and its amazing liver regenerating powers.

In some parts of Europe they use it in hospitals to antidote the toxicity caused by ingestion of the deadly death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides.)

Milk thistle seed preparations have also been found to be effective in the treatment of hepatitis, cirrhosis and jaundice, and in protecting liver cells against toxins such as industrial solvents, and prolonged drug therapy.

Regular use of milk thistle has been shown to improve digestive problems, appetite, and overall well being. It is often used preventatively to counteract the potential detrimental effects of environmental toxins, alcohol and drugs. This herb can safely be used for relatively long periods of time.

Sometimes milk thistle preparations are sold as Silymarin, because this is the compound within the plant believed to have the potent liver regenerative effect. Silymarin is not a single component, but a complex of chemicals found within the milk thistle seed.

Photo: Sarah O'Leary

Where To Find Milk Thistle

You could go out and harvest your own milk thistle seeds, but it would be quite a job if you wanted to collect them in any quantity. Wear thick gloves and clothing to protect yourself from the sharp prickles. Mature seeds, which have the highest level of silymarin, are found in seed heads showing abundant silvery white fluff. Cut off seed heads with scissors and place into a basket, then remove seed from pods and hairs. Screen out debris and your seeds are ready for consumption.

Or, if sifting through thistly seed heads isn’t really your thing, you can opt to purchase milk thistle seeds. You can buy milk thistle seeds dried, in capsules, in liquid extract form, freeze-dried, standardized – you name it, they probably sell it that way.

The best way I know to use the whole seeds is to grind them and sprinkle them over your food as mentioned above. The beneficial compounds in the plant are not very water soluble, so milk thistle tea is not all that effective.

You’ll find many versions of milk thistle or silymarin at your favorite health food store – or you can order from Moonrise Herbs or Mountain Rose Herbs.

I think of milk thistle as an ally to help my liver do its job. I like to go on little regimens and take it for a month or so at a time, a few times a year, especially in the spring.

Time for a milk thistle regimen!

Have you tried milk thistle before? Willing to give it a go for a spring detox? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Photo Credit:  terriam

This post was shared on Wildcrafting Wednesday.

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7 Responses to Milk Thistle: An Internal Spring Cleaning

  1. Thanks for the reminder Sarah, my homeopath told me to take Milk Thistle with my latest remedy and it had completely slipped my mind. Glad I stopped by 🙂

    • Interesting Ciara. Was he referring to homeopathic milk thistle I wonder? Because that is probably different that the straight up herb. (Because homeopathic remedies are so dilute, sometimes they have a different effect than in their plant form.)

      In any event I’m glad the post prodded your memory!

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Very informative article. I will definitely give it a try! Thanks! Becky

    • I’m glad you got something out of this Becky! Definitely give it a try, it’s one of the winners. And thanks for stopping by the blog. We miss you!!

  3. Interesting Ciara. Was he referring to homeopathic milk thistle I wonder? Because that is probably different that the straight up herb. (Because homeopathic remedies are so dilute, sometimes they have a different effect than in their plant form.)

    In any event I’m glad the post prodded your memory!

  4. Great info! I have just gotten some milk thistle seeds to add into my detox program, my liver needs all the help it can get 🙂

    • Awesome! You definitely won’t regret it and I know your liver is already thanking you. Thanks for your comment and for visiting the blog. The Hella Delicious site looks like it’s got lots of interesting info.

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