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Milk thistle is a member of the sunflower family native to a narrow area of the Mediterranean. It has since been naturalized throughout Europe and can commonly be found in Oregon and California where it is considered a common garden weed. Despite this unsavory reputation, milk thistle has quite a striking appearance, noted by the large pink or purple flower growing atop its solitary stem.
The edible thistles were given the name silybum by Dioscorides, a Greek physician who served in the Roman Army over 1,900 years ago. The thistle with white mottling on its leaves became known as the “milk” thistle. In Catholic Germany, its usefulness was said to be second only to calling on Mother Mary, and the white mottling on the leaf is said to be the touch of the Virgin Mary’s milk, hence the species name “marianum.”
The leaves of the milk thistle are edible and can be consumed as a potherb. Because the thorns must be snipped off before preparation as a food item, commercial distribution is impractical. Nevertheless, the leaves make a delicious addition to salads, tasting similar to lettuce.
Three of the active compounds within milk thistle seed are collectively identified as silymarin. This constituent is credited for much of milk thistle’s medicinal value, particularly that which is associated with healthy liver support. The German Commission E has approved an extract of 70% silymarin in supporting healthy liver function. The Commission has also approved milk thistle in its crude form for minor dyspeptic complaints.
Liver disease from alcohol
Milk thistle is often suggested as a treatment for alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis. But scientific studies show mixed results. Most studies show milk thistle improves liver function and increases survival in people with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis. But problems in the design of the studies (such as small numbers of participants and differences in dosing and duration of milk thistle therapy) make it hard to draw any real conclusions.
Milk thistle is widely used in the treatment of viral hepatitis (particularly hepatitis C). However, studies show mixed results. Some found improvements in liver function, while others did not. In one study of 16 patients who didn’t respond to interferon and ribavirin therapy, milk thistle significantly reduced the viral load of hepatitis C. In 7 of the subjects, the virus decreased to undetectable levels after 14 days of therapy.
Based on traditional use, milk thistle has been used as an emergency antidote to poisoning by deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies have found that milk thistle extract completely counteracts the toxic effects of the mushroom when given within 10 minutes of ingestion. If given within 24 hours, it significantly reduces the risk of liver damage and death.
Early laboratory studies also suggest that silymarin and other active substances in milk thistle may have anticancer effects. These substances appear to stop cancer cells from dividing and reproducing, shorten their lifespan, and reduce blood supply to tumours. Some studies suggest silymarin may favourably supplement sunscreen protection and may help reduce the risk of skin cancer. More studies are needed, however, to show whether milk thistle has any effects in the body (not just in test tubes).
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