Exploring Milk Thistle ~
Milk Thistle was probably introduced into Britain by the Romans. The medieval herbalist, Gerard, reported that it 'groweth upon waste and common places by high waies, and by dunghills and almost everywhere.' Today, Milk Thistle is a fairly rare sight in Britain - but this is not the case in other parts of Europe.
Where to find Milk Thistle
On sunny slopes in Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain and Greece, Milk Thistle grows so vigorously that it often forms beautiful but impenetrable wastelands. The plant is more sparsely distributed in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, southern regions of the US, Africa, India, Asia and South America.
If left to grow and propagate without interference, Milk Thistle will, by way of its' 'parachute' system of seed distribution, soon establish itself.
The plant prefers a sunny location and like all thistles, it is hardy and adaptable.
Milk Thistle is grown commercially on plantations throughout the world (Argentina, Australia, Texas, Russia, China, Germany, Romania and Hungary). It grows most successfully in hot regions with low to moderate rainfall and it is usually grown organically.
The plant is cultivated as an annual. The seeds are sown directly into the ground and the plant grows quickly to a height of 6ft (2m). It requires relatively little attention - weeding is unnecessary - and it is fairly pest-resistant.
Milk Thistle prefers light, well-drained soil. Commercial growers also favor a light, friable soil, because it makes the removal of the old plant following harvesting a swifter process. It is also easier to plant the sees for the following year?s crop in this type of soil.
Milk Thistle is a great coloniser of cultivated ground, which is why steps were taken to stop it spreading across farmland. However, soil rich in artificial fertilisers (nitrogen in particular) may have an adverse effect on the plant.
Milk Thistle was once called the Venus Thistle and was dedicated to Freya, the Norse goddess of love and beauty. In the first century CE Pliny described it as excellent for removing bile, while Dioscorides recommended it for melancholy and snakebite. When the Roman armies traveled across Europe, they took Milk Thistle seeds, leaves, stalks and roots with them to provide food and medicine.
It is probable that Milk Thistle found its' way to Britain through the Romans, where it gained a reputation as a gentle healing plant.
In medieval times it was believed that the plants' markings and milky sap were created by milk falling from the Virgin Mary's breast as she suckled the infant Jesus, giving rise to the folk names of Holy Thistle, Our Lady's Thistle and Mary's Thistle.
Herbalists described the plant as 'a great breeder of milk and a proper diet for wet nurses'. This has been disputed, but modern herbalists find that Milk Thistle does actually improve lactation. The herbalist Gerard stated, 'My opinion is that this is the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases'.
In the 17th century, the famous British herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper recommended Milk Thistle for curing agues and the plague. He claimed that 'it provoketh urine and breaketh and expelleth the stone and is good for the dropsy'. He also considered it helpful for relieving 'a pain in the side' - possibly a 'stitch', or discomfort in the region of the liver. He gave instructions for its' use in removing obstructions of the liver and spleen and curing jaundice. A decoction of the seed was to be taken internally or applied to the affected area on a compress.
Collective research from a number of countries worldwide has now shown that silymarin, a chemical constituent of Milk Thistle seeds, has a protective and regenerative effect upon the liver. This positively affects the memory and disposition. Culpeper also suggested eating the young plant in spring to cleanse the blood and improve circulation. Similarly, recent research suggests that powdered seed may eventually be of use in the treatment of some cardiovascular disorders.
Over the last fifty years, scientists have succeeded in identifying the active ingredients in Milk Thistle, most notably a group of three related compounds which are collectively named silymarin. Experiments have proved conclusively that silymarin protects the liver from damage by a variety of toxins.
The most amazing of these experiments revealed that silymarin could reverse the deadly effects of eating the Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), which contains some of the most potent liver toxins known to humankind. They can cause permanent liver damage or death within a few hours of ingestion.
Research in Germany and the United States suggests that Milk Thistle is invaluable in the treatment of liver damage caused by alcoholic cirrhosis, fatty regeneration and the effects of pharmaceutical drugs, anesthetics and poisoning. It is also useful in the treatment of psoriasis.
Milk Thistles' healing properties were first discovered through practical experience rather than through pharmacological research carried out by scientists.
The seeds contain essential oils, unsaturated fatty acids, bitter compounds, polyacetylenes and flavonoids collectively known as 'silymarin.'
Silymarin is virtually insoluble in water, making aqueous preparations less effective. The component of silymarin that yields the greatest degree of biological activity is called silybin.
Although there is a white variety of the plant, it is the seeds of the purple variety that are richest in beneficial substances. Analysis of wild Milk Thistle seeds gathered from more southerly countries revealed that they had a markedly higher silymarin content than those from northern regions. Rainfall, average temperature and genetic heritage also affect the production of silymarin by the plant.
The seeds also contain starch, protein and oil. The fatty acid content is 20-25%, of which the principal ingredients are linoleic acid (50-60%) and oleic acid (25-30%). Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid needed for the synthesis of prostaglandins. A diet including a high concentration of linoleic acid can reduce chronic inflammation in the body by increasing the synthesis of prostaglandins. Essential fatty acids also help to regulate the hormone balance in women and men and reduce the possibility of cardiovascular disease.
The flavonoid content is 2-5%. Flavonoids are useful when there is evidence of increased capillary fragility - easy bruising, vascular disease, some allergic states, haemorrhoids, diabetes mellitus and oedema. Many flavonoids are potent antioxidants.
Flavonoids seem to function as 'biological response modifiers' in the body, not only acting against, but modifying the bodys' response to, allergy, viruses, carcinogens and inflammation.
Flavonoids are also impressively active in fighting a wide range of free radicals.
For centuries, Milk Thistle has been used to treat a variety of ailments. Modern medical research has proved that the plant is useful for treating liver problems: the seeds contain silymarin, which protects and regenerates the liver. Milk Thistle has no known adverse effects on the body.
How Milk Thistle Can Help
Milk Thistle has a major effect on a number of vital body functions:
Stimulates the liver and gall bladder and aids bile flow.
Encourages bowel movement and removes attendant toxicity.
Clears the kidneys, promoting better urination.
Improves the functioning of the liver, thereby helping to clear skin.
Helps soften kidney stones and gallstones
Alleviates painful menstruation and is an invaluable all-round pre-menstrual herb.
Many conditions that benefit from Milk Thistle are 'diseases of civilisation', such as symptoms of a sluggish and unresponsive liver, which are frequently induced by a stressful lifestyle that puts additional pressure upon the liver by loading it with toxins. Coffee, alcohol, junk food, prescription drugs (particularly analgesics, anti-depressants and tranquillisers, which are taken as an antidote to many of these ailments but instead exacerbate them), environmental chemicals and pollutants, vegetables sprayed with pesticides, smoking, excessive quantities of red meat and fatty foods may all increase the risk of liver damage.
Eliminating these causative factors, while using Milk Thistle as a back-up treatment for the liver, will help restore health and protect against future damage.
The French traditionally considered the liver to be more important for general well-being than any other organs. Milk Thistle was relied on to protect against consuming too much alcohol.
Milk Thistle's active components are a complex of flavonoids known collectively as silmarin. Silymarin works very simply: by altering the structure of the outer membrane of the liver cells, it prevents poisons from entering those cells and stimulates the regeneration of damaged cells by increasing cell division.
Silymarin acts as a scavenger of free radicals, neutralising toxic invaders. It also promotes the release of superoxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant that appears to be specifically effective in scavenging the free radicals caused by alcohol in the liver.
Silymarin's powerful effect on the liver is due to the way it is absorbed through the intestines (with bile), reabsorbed through the intestines and recycled through the liver. This continual cycle ensures that silymarin is concentrated in the liver.
Strengthens and stabilises liver cells and walls, preventing many toxins from breaking through fatty cell membranes and entering cells.
Neutralises toxic substances that do break through.
Induces the formation of liver cell proteins, which strengthen the liver and make it more resistant to toxins.
Stimulates protein synthesis in liver cells by increasing DNA and RNA activity, enhancing the rejuvenation of liver cells.
Boosts the activity of antioxidants.
Prevents the depiction of glutathione in liver cells. Glutathione is one of the most powerful antioxidants and detoxifies many hormones, drugs and chemicals. Raising the level of glutathione increases the capacity for detoxification.
Helps reverse alcohol damage by normalising the ability of the liver to make phospholipids, including cholesterol, which insulate the brain.
Without cholesterol, the brain shrinks in the face of sustained alcohol consumption.
Stimulates production of new liver cells and inhibits formation of damaging leukotrienes.
Milk Thistle is most specifically of value in treating liver and gall bladder problems, jaundice and conditions that may be the result of a 'sluggish' liver such as depression, dyspepsia and listlessness.
Liver disease has many diverse causes, some of which are self-inflicted. Although Milk Thistle can be very effective, it cannot heal if the body is continually abused. It should not be considered an easy alternative to making improvements to diet and lifestyle.
In the 1970's, two German research groups led by E. Kaisewetter and R. D. Schopen proved through clinical studies that 70% of patients suffering from chronic liver disorders had a vastly improved chance of recovery when given between 210-420mg of silymarin daily over periods ranging from six weeks to two years. The silymarin reversed liver damage and decreased levels of liver enzyme transimanase in the blood (raised levels are evident in hepatitis).
Silymarin has also been shown to reverse the effects of highly toxic alkaloids such as phalloidine and [alpha]-amantine, found in the Death Cap mushroom. In 1981, Dr. Vogel of the University of Munich treated patients who had been poisoned by this mushroom. Daily injections of silymarin reduced the death rate to zero, whereas the expected death rate would have been 30-40%. He concluded from this that Milk Thistle interfered with the circulation of poison in the liver cells, protecting them from further damage and healing and regenerating those already damaged.
Clinical studies have shown that in cases of acute hepatitis recovery time is halved when patients are treated with silymarin. In cases of alcoholic hepatic cirrhosis, the survival rate of patients treated with silymarin over a five-year period increased nearly threefold.
Where alcohol causes fatty degeneration of the liver, tests have shown that treatment with silymarin can result in an 80% improvement regeneration of the liver.
Heavy metals, pesticides, organophosphates and other pollutants may be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and their effects not felt for some years, by which time the toxins have lodged in the liver and caused serious damage. The resulting symptoms vary from nausea, tiredness, memory loss and skin disease, to severe hepatic disorders. Since 1969, extensive ongoing clinical trials have proved conclusively that silymarin is a potent liver-protecting substance, which both reverses the effects of these toxins and heals damaged liver cells.
During the early 1990's, Italian scientists started research into making a new Milk Thistle product, which is said to be more easily absorbed. Silybin, the most highly active component of silymarin, was combined with phosphatidylcholine to produce a product called silipede. When S. Mascarella at the Institute of Clinical Medicine in Florence tested it on patients with either viral or chronic alcohol-induced hepatitis, it produced very positive results with remarkable decreases in enzyme levels. Further tests showed that patients with long-term chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C had a vastly improved liver function.
Milk Thistle has been widely used as a medication over a long period of time and there have been no reports of any adverse reactions to it. Its' very low toxicity makes it invaluable for long-term use.
As Milk Thistle is a detoxifying herb, initial side-effects such as slight nausea, headache, skin rashes or mild diarrhoea may occur. These effects will soon pass.
Milk Thistle is believed to be safe for everyone, even those most vulnerable members of society, such as pregnant women, children, the elderly and invalids. However, you should consult a doctor or herbalist before taking any herb alongside other medication.
Milk Thistle is gentle enough to ensure that there are no adverse effects when taken during pregnancy. It will assist the balanced working of all organs and reduce the side-effects of antibiotics (which it may be necessary to take to fight microbial infection). It helps banish morning sickness as well as motion sickness. It also lessons the likelihood of both varicose veins and haemorrhoids, which are often caused by poor circulation during pregnancy.
Historically, Milk Thistle was thought to encourage good milk production in nursing mothers because it brought about a sense of well-being and calm. The latest research seems to support this.
Children are less likely to suffer damage from toxins such as alcohol, so do not need to take Milk Thistle on a regular basis. However, when taken as a preventative or as a support to other treatment, Milk Thistle can have many beneficial effects. When taken, alongside medication prescribed for allergy, infection or chronic illness, it will ensure there is no toxic build-up in the liver. It will regulate the working of the liver, kidneys and bowels and help boost the immune system.
Mild food poisoning and nausea can also be alleviated by a course of Milk Thistle, but it must be stressed that professional advice should always be sought in cases of childhood illness.
Milk Thistle is also effective in helping to clear skin conditions that break out in puberty and develop into acne or psoriasis.
Milk Thistle can help to disperse many health problems associated with old age, because it helps to promote the smooth function of all the internal organs. As a liver cleanser, it reduces the risk of liver malfunction and the painful, debilitating conditions that may arise from this. Milk Thistle stimulates the kidneys and bowels into functioning better and improves circulation which, in turn, leads to improved mobility and sharper memory. These factors help to enhance quality of life during old-age.
As a support herb for the long-term treatment of serious illness, Milk Thistle can prevent some of the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs. It helps the organs and the circulation regain a natural, balanced routine, which may have been inhibited by surgery, convalescence or mobility.
Milk Thistle seeds contain substances collectively known as silymarin. The main active constituent is silybin, which improves the function of the liver and kidneys and prevents and repairs damage.
Silymarin inhibits the factors responsible for liver damage and stimulates the growth of new liver cells to replace injured ones. Toxins that attack and remain within the liver produce or act as free radicals - highly reactive molecules that damage other molecules, including those in cells. Silymarin prevents free-radical damage by acting as an antioxidant, one that is even more powerful than vitamin E.
Silymarin has been shown to increase the glutathione content of the liver. Glutathione takes up and gives off hydrogen, and is fundamentally important in cellular respiration. The effect of silymarin on the system is to pump out poisons, therefore, by increasing the glutathione content of the liver, it gives it an increased capacity for the process of detoxification.
The liver can also be damaged by the action of leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are compounds produced by the transfer of an oxygen molecule to polyunsaturated fatty acids, a reaction caused by the enzyme lipoxygenase. Silymarin is a potent inhibitor against this enzyme and fights against leukotriene formation. Silymarin's most powerful component is silybin.
Silymarin may also be an important factor in the treatment of psoriasis, because of the cause of this condition is over-production of leukotrienes. Psoriasis has also been shown to be linked to a high level of circulating endotoxins such as those found in gut bacteria. If the level of endotoxins or toxins increases until the liver is overwhelmed, or if the liver's ability to filter and detoxify is inhibited, then the existing psoriasis becomes worse.
Silymarin has the ability to stimulate protein synthesis, an action that results in an increase in the production of new liver cells to replace old ones, but which does not increase malignant cells, thus exerting both protective and restorative influences.
Another protective role played by silymarin involves the way in which toxins are cycled continuously between the gastrointestinal tract and the liver, which cannot avoid causing some liver damage. Silymarin interrupts that cycle. More than 90% of the silymarin that is absorbed through the intestines ends up in the liver. From there it is passed into the intestines, along with bile and then as much as 50% is reabsorbed through the intestines. Hardly any silymarin reaches the bloodstream and only 5-7% is eliminated in urine. It is repeatedly recycled through the intestines and liver, moving from blood plasma to bile and concentrating its beneficial effects in the liver cells. These cells are protected from damage by circulating toxins and so can act as centres for the generation of new cells. Eventually, complete restoration of the liver is possible. Silymarin has proved to be particularly effective in protecting against liver damage that is caused by alcohol and chemical toxins.
Milk Thistle's stimulating, decongestive action is also useful in the treatment of problems of the kidneys, lungs, heart, bladder and uterus. It also ensures a sense of well-being and good health.
Speeds recovery in viral and alcohol-induced hepatitis.
Slows progression of cirrhosis and extends life expectancy.
Protects against side-effects of some pharmaceutical drugs.
Improves liver function in cases of chemical poisoning.
Helps reverse liver damage.
Promotes bowel movement via an increase in blood flow.
Improves kidney function and urination.
Clears the skin of rashes and some skin diseases.
Assists in countering the pain and discomfort of menstrual and premenstrual problems.
Milk Thistle extract is absorbed into the blood very quickly and reaches its full potential one hour after it has been taken.
Depending upon the type and severity of a patients disease, a course of treatment that includes Milk Thistle may start to show significant results in as little as seven days, but in severe cases of cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis, full remission may take two years.
In cases of general debility and biliousness, an improvement will be felt after a week to ten days. If the skin has a jaundiced hue, this will eventually disappear.