Milk thistle - history and word origin
Milk thistle allegedly got its name because of a legend that says that St. Mary, while breastfeeding her child, lost some milk that dripped on the leaves of the thistle - milk thistle. And indeed, you can find small white spots on the leaves of the plant.
The fact that milk thistle is a medicinal plant has been known since ancient times. Hildegard von Bingen also recorded the positive power of the thistle in writings and in the 19th century the physician Johann Gottfried Rademacher discovered its positive effects on the liver.
Milk thistle - appearance and occurrence
Milk thistle (lat. Silybum marianum) is a 1-2 year old herbaceous plant that grows up to 1 ½ meters high. Its stem is erect and branched and its leaves are mostly hairless and shiny greenish with whitish spots around the veins. They grow up to 50 cm long and 25 cm wide, have an elongated to lanceolate shape and are strongly toothed with spines about 8 mm long on their edges.
The reddish to purple spherical flower heads are solitary and surrounded by spiny bracts. The fruits of milk thistle are elongated and smooth and shiny dark brown, forming a white shiny pappus.
Milk thistle belongs to the daisy family of plants and is a relative of the sunflower, marguerite, daisy and of dandelion, which, as described in our article is excellent for prophylaxis and treatment of Covid-19.
The subfamily is Carduoideae, which includes artichoke and cornflower.
Milk thistle blooms from June to September and is mainly found in southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa, where it grows on dry but nutrient-rich soils and can be found, for example, along roadsides or in rubble areas.
Milk thistle effect and its ingredients
The healing properties of milk thistle have been known since ancient times and today it is one of the most popular medicinal plants in Europe.
It has a detoxifying effect on the body and is mainly used in chronic inflammatory liver diseases and against digestive problems.
The herb of milk thistle is hardly used as a medicine, rather its fruits are used. These consist of between 1.5% and 3% of silymarin, fatty oils (such as linoleic acid and oleic acid) and to a large extent protein. Silymarin is also found in other parts of the plant, but the concentration is highest in the fruits.
The main active substances of milk thistle belong to the flavonoids (plant pigments), which is why the medicinal plant is counted among the flavonoid drugs, which also include St. John's wort, chamomile or arnica.
Active ingredient silymarin in more detail
Silymarin is a mixture of active ingredients from various flavonolignans, silibinin, isosilibinin, silychristin and silydianin.
Silymarin consists of silibinin between 50% and 70%, which is mainly responsible for the effect of milk thistle.
Researchers were able to demonstrate this because the concentration of silibinin in the bile, through which 80% of silymarin are excreted, was 60 times higher than that of the other components.
Silymarin has been shown to have regenerative (increases RNA synthesis and protein formation in the liver), anti-inflammatory, stabilizing (stabilizes and strengthens the cell membrane of liver cells), antioxidant (defuses free radicals), hepatoprotective (protects the liver), antifibrotic (counteracts pathological proliferation of connective tissue), and transport-regulating (inhibits the penetration of toxic substances into the cell membrane and impedes the binding of substances within the cell).
Since silymarin reaches its maximum concentration in the blood two to four hours after ingestion, it is advisable to spread the intake throughout the day so that a lasting effect can be achieved.
How do I use milk thistle?
Milk thistle can be used not only in connection with liver or digestive problems, but can be used in many other places. We have compiled 17 important points:
1. milk thistle and the liver
Milk thistle is most commonly added for the treatment of liver problems.
Here, it is used for liver cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, non-alcoholic fatty liver, virus-induced hepatitis (hepatitis B), and liver damage caused by excessive alcohol consumption, among others.
The silymarin in milk thistle has an antioxidant effect and reduces the production of free radicals, which has a detoxifying effect and can therefore be beneficial for the treatment of the above diseases.
In addition, the section "Active ingredient silymarin in more detail" mentions many other benefits that this active ingredient has on the liver.
2. milk thistle and the kidneys
The active ingredient silymarin concentrates in the kidney cells, where it supports the regeneration of kidney cells by increasing protein and nucleic acid synthesis. Silymarin is believed to increase the replication of the cell by 30% through silybin and silychristin.
4. milk thistle and the gall bladder
Bile, consisting of cholesterol, water, bile salts and pigments, is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder, aiding the digestive process and removing certain waste products from the body.
For the proper elimination of toxins, the health of the gallbladder, liver and digestive system, it is important that enough bile is always produced and can flow freely.
There are good bile stimulating agents, also called cholagogues, which support this process. A distinction is made between choleretics (stimulation of bile production in the liver) and cholekinetics (promotion of bile flow by facilitating bile contraction).
Milk thistle acts on both processes, with silymarin initiating the production of bile acid in the liver, and silibinin helping with congestion of this in liver cells.
5. milk thistle and the skin
The skin is known to be a mirror of health. Thus, an unhealthy skin appearance indicates that the organs or the metabolism are not working properly. The liver in particular is clearly visible here, as it is responsible for the breakdown of harmful substances, the storage of vitamins and the conversion into building blocks that can be used by the body. If its function is disturbed, the toxins cannot be broken down and thus settle in the body.
A diseased liver can be recognized on the skin by a bright shiny red tongue, severe itching and milky white fingernails or in extreme cases by jaundice.
Since milk thistle strengthens the liver and its active ingredients are anti-inflammatory, they can improve the appearance of skin caused by a diseased liver.
6. milk thistle and acne
Acne is one of the most common skin diseases worldwide, in which the skin has to deal with chronic inflammation. In severe cases of the disease, sufferers often suffer greatly from the deep scars that are left behind.
Researchers, through a study of 56 men and women who took silymarin, NAC, and selenium orally over an 8-week period, found that the number of skin lesions caused by acne decreased by 53% when taking silymarin. The results when taking NAC were similarly positive at 50%, while selenium did not demonstrate any decisive results in this case.
This study came about because the researchers found a direct correlation between the development of acne and oxidative stress, and then examined the 3 antioxidants above for the number of skin lesions caused by acne.
7. milk thistle and anti-aging
Milk thistle extract has antioxidant properties that can protect cells from oxidative stress and thus prevent premature aging of the skin.
Also, it was shown by a study that milk thistle extract has a positive effect on skin hydration, as the flavonoids it contains are able to increase collagen in the skin.
Increasing water loss from the epidermis causes degeneration of collagen and skin wrinkles are directly related to collagen loss.
8. milk thistle and the psyche
Since a healthy body is very important for general well-being, milk thistle also has positive effects on the psyche.
A weakened or damaged liver can cause harmful substances to settle in the body, which has a negative effect on metabolism and digestion. Which weakens the entire body and leads to fatigue and lack of concentration, which ultimately affects mood and can result in sleep disorders, a general feeling of weakness and depression. Through its liver detoxifying and strengthening properties, milk thistle therefore also provides an increased sense of well-being.
TCM also attributes a positive effect to milk thistle. It is said that it can release the energy congestion in the liver and has a cooling effect on the dissolved energy, which brings body and mind back into balance.
9. milk thistle and digestion
In addition to the already mentioned active ingredient silymarin, milk thistle contains important bitter substances as well as tannins, which have a digestive effect.
The medicinal plant stimulates the production of bile and gastric acid, both of which are important for healthy digestion.
Also, the detoxifying properties of the plant have a positive effect on digestion.
Taking the seeds of milk thistle, either finely ground or in whole pieces, cleanses the inner walls of the intestines as the seeds rub against the walls.
10. milk thistle and cholesterol
Several studies showed that milk thistle has a positive effect on cholesterol levels, in which silymarin can inhibit the development of hypercholesterolemia (pathological disorder of fat metabolism), which leads to excessive levels of cholesterol in the blood, which in turn can cause serious damage to health, such as atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack and kidney disease.
11. milk thistle and glutathione
Silymarin, through its antioxidant action, protects the degradation of glutathione and even stimulates the body's synthesis of glutathione in the liver, where the highest concentration of this small protein is located.
Glutathione has several functions in the body, including helping to maintain normal immune system function and supporting detoxification processes. Glutathione acts as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals or reactive oxygen species that can damage cells by attacking their DNA, proteins and other molecules. In this way, glutathione helps protect the body from oxidative damage.
Find out why glutathione is so incredibly important in our article on the super antioxidant.
12. milk thistle and diabetes
Milk thistle may be complementary in the treatment of type II diabetes. Scientists discovered that silibinin has a similar effect to some diabetic drugs in that it helps improve insulin sensitivity and lowers blood sugar.
However, further studies are needed to more accurately demonstrate the efficacy of milk thistle extract in type II diabetes.
In addition, milk thistle also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the risk of diseases associated with diabetes, such as kidney disease.
13. milk thistle and the immune system
Milk thistle can help strengthen a person's immune response to better fight off infections.
That milk thistle extract has a positive effect on the immune response and can stimulate the immune system was shown in a 2002 in vitro study conducted on mouse lymphocytes.
14. milk thistle and the bones
A 2013 study showed that milk thistle can prevent bone loss caused by estrogen deficiency. Such estrogen deficiency can affect women after menopause. The researchers found that the osteoprotective effect of milk thistle extract is comparable to the effect of isoflavones (secondary plant compounds whose structure and mode of action are similar to those of the female sex hormone estrogen). Therefore, they believe that silymarin, and especially the silibinin it contains, may be an alternative treatment for the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis. And thus plays an important role in supporting healthy bones.
15. milk thistle and cancer
Naturally occurring polyphenolic antioxidants belong, some researchers suggest, to one of the most effective classes of cancer preventive agents. They reduce oxidative stress, which plays a major role in the development of cancer, and also do not exhibit systemic toxicity. In this context, some studies have looked at the efficacy of flavonoids, such as those found in silymarin. The flavonoids contained in silymarin can influence the signaling and resulting growth of cancer cells.
Also, silymarin could prevent skin cancer due to its ability to protect the skin from UV radiation damage.
16. milk thistle and the brain
Although there are currently no human studies investigating the effects of milk thistle in patients with Alzheimer's disease or other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease, some researchers believe that compounds such as silymarin could, in principle, be a promising alternative treatment for neurodegenerative disorders.
A 2017 research paper found the following neuroprotective properties of silymarin:
- Silymarin increases anti-amyloidogenic activity, which is characteristic of Alzheimer's disease (amyloidosis is an umbrella term for a whole range of diseases. In all of them, abnormally folded proteins cluster together and deposit in the tissues, forming so-called amyloids, because the body does not manage to eliminate these amounts of proteins).
- Silymarin may prevent degeneration-related Parkinson's activity
- Silymarin has a neuroprotective effect due to its anti-inflammatory properties
- Silymarin may prevent cognitive impairment.
A 2010 study examined silymarin in relation to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and concluded that silymarin may also be a good herbal alternative for treating OCD here.
17. milk thistle and fungal infections
Candidiasis is a fungal infection that arises from the yeast fungus (Candida Albicans). This yeast fungus is naturally present in the body of many people, but in small amounts. However, if it multiplies, for example due to a weakened immune system, diabetes, cancer or the use of antibiotics, it can cause infections.
According to a 2016 study, the silybinin in milk thistle can induce cell death of these yeast fungi. However, further studies are needed to actually prove its effectiveness in the body.
Milk thistle - intake and dosage
Milk thistle can be taken in several forms that can vary greatly in effectiveness, so it is wise to choose one depending on the presenting complaint.
Also, the dosage depends on the particular complaint and should definitely be discussed beforehand with a doctor, pharmacist or with otherwise a competent person.
In general, milk thistle is best taken in the morning or evening, but not before sleeping, as it promotes digestion, which affects the stomach, which in turn can lead to sleep disturbances.
Milk Thistle Tea
A tea from milk thistle is something that anyone can make themselves. To do this, a teaspoon of the finely ground and previously dried fruit, pour cold water and then boil.
Since a tea from milk thistle tastes quite bitter, you can mix it well with other teas such as sage, peppermint or dandelion. These also fit well thematically, as they are also said to have a positive effect on the digestive system.
Milk thistle tea is not suitable for counteracting liver diseases, as the important ingredients of the medicinal plant are not soluble in water and are therefore present in much too low a concentration when the tea is prepared.
However, such tea can help with bloating and flatulence.
Preparations with milk thistle
There are various forms of milk thistle preparations, such as tablets, capsules, drops and powder. Again, the type of preparation should be selected depending on the complaint, as they contain different dosages of silymarin.
In the case of mushroom poisoning, the option of an infusion is also available to drain the toxin from the body as quickly as possible.
Here, too, as always, the whole thing should be discussed with the doctor beforehand.
Milk thistle fruits are also used in the field of homeopathy, with the name "Carduus marianus".
Milk Thistle Preparation
Milk thistle oil
Cold-pressed milk thistle oil is obtained from ripe seeds. It is rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin E, antioxidants and sterols (secondary plant constituents). These substances give the oil its skin-protective and nutritional properties.
Cosmetics also use the beneficial properties of this oil, which has a very high content of linoleic acid, which is particularly good for the skin. This allows it to help soothe eczema or acne.
However, it should definitely be mixed with another carrier oil, otherwise it has a very short shelf life.
Milk thistle - side effects
In general, milk thistle is considered to be very well tolerated. Nevertheless, the fruits of milk thistle can cause flatulence and abdominal pain if taken in high doses.
In addition, milk thistle belongs to the daisy family, so those who are allergic to this group should rather not use the medicinal plant.
Milk thistle - and other drugs
Since it is possible that the active ingredient silymarin interacts with various medications, such as psychotropic drugs, lipid-lowering drugs, protease inhibitors, oral contraceptives, penicillin, or diabetes medications, the intake of the medicinal plant should be discussed in advance with a doctor, pharmacist, or other knowledgeable person.
Milk thistle - and chemotherapy
There are several studies showing that milk thistle seed extract can protect the delicate kidney cells and tubules from damage caused by chemotherapy. It seems that silymarin here reduces the high level of oxidative stress caused by chemotherapy with the drugs cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin, which contributes to kidney cell damage.
Taking the medicinal plant should be agreed in advance with a doctor, pharmacist or otherwise a competent person.
Milk thistle - and operations
Before surgery, patients are often recommended to take milk thistle supplements to better cope with the negative effects of anesthesia.
Clinical studies found that silymarin extracts (420 mg/day) may prevent liver damage attributable to general anesthetics in patients undergoing major surgery.
Milk thistle - and antibiotics
Antibiotic resistance is one of the main problems of modern medicine.
The most common cause of wound infections is the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus.
Iranian researchers have therefore developed a drug based on milk thistle extract that can be used to treat infections caused by this pathogen.
More research is needed to see the full effectiveness of milk thistle in place of antibiotics.