Milk Thistle: Help For Your Liver

Common Name

Milk Thistle

Botanical Name

Silybum marianum


St. Mary's Thistle
Milk Thistle
Silybum marianum
St. Mary's Thistle
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Chris with Milk Thistle

“In cases of liver disease due to excessive alcohol consumption, milk thistle extract can repair a damaged liver if the alcohol use is suspended. In cases of mushroom poisoning, milk thistle can save your life and restore proper liver function. Milk thistle demonstrates anti-cancer activity, and is useful in some cases of viral hepatitis. ” - Chris Kilham, Natural Products Marketplace

We really don’t notice how hard the liver works. Yet day in and day out, the liver is constantly ridding your body of toxins. But what can you when your liver needs some support? The answer is milk thistle.

Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is native to southern Europe and southern Russia, and contains a complex of therapeutic compounds known collectively as silymarin. Milk thistle has been employed as a medicine for at least 2,000 years, primarily for ailments of the liver. The 4th Century BC herbalist Theophrastus, and the 1st Century AD physicians Dioscorides and Pliny all mentioned milk thistle. In the 19th and 20th century, Eclectic physicians in the United States prescribed milk thistle for disorders of the liver, kidneys and spleen, and for varicose veins and pelvic congestion.

Use of milk thistle seed for the treatment of liver ailments was promoted by 19th century German physician Rademacher. Since the late 1930’s Germany’s Madaus herbal company has led scientific investigation into the properties and health benefits of milk thistle. Today in Europe, milk thistle is widely recognized and employed as a protective and restorative agent for liver damage due to hepatitis, cirrhosis, alcohol, drugs, and environmental toxins. In France, Germany, Hungary and Greece, various preparations of milk thistle are employed for a wide variety of health complaints related to liver function. These uses are becoming increasingly popular in the United States due to keen interest in natural remedies.

As an herbal remedy, milk thistle in the form of standardized extracts made from the seeds of the plant, is used for liver protective and therapeutic purposes. Milk thistle is widely used throughout Europe for liver ailments including hepatitis A, alcoholic cirrhosis, and exposure to hazardous chemicals. Milk thistle helps to repair damage to the liver, and to regenerate liver tissue. For this reason, it is a highly beneficial health aid.

Silymarin in milk thistle has been shown to inhibit damage from toxic substances including alcohol, drugs and other chemicals. Silymarin stabilizes cell membranes in the liver, thus minimizing or inhibiting cell damage due to insult from harmful agents. Silymarin not only shows protective power, but demonstrates specific activity in regenerating liver cells as well.

Some of silymarin’s protective activity is as an antioxidant. In this role, silymarin neutralizes harmful substances called free radicals which can damage cells. Specifically, silymarin protects oxidative damage to the lipid membrane which surrounds liver cells. A review of 36 silymarin studies found that silymarin from milk thistle demonstrates cell protective activity in the liver, and reduces risk of mortality in cases of cirrhosis. The review further suggested that silymarin may be specifically beneficial in cases of alcohol-related cirrhosis.

Look for standardized extracts of milk thistle containing between 100 -200—mg silymarin (calculated as silibinin) per capsule/tablet. As recommended by Germany’s Commission E, for liver protective and supportive treatment purposes, take 200 – 400 mg of silymarin, in doses of 100 – 200 mg of silymarin, 2 times daily, morning and evening, with sufficient fluids.