Milk Thistle

Silybum marianum


Milk thistle has been in constant use as a liver protector and rejuvenator for thousands of years. It is native to the Mediterranean and grows wild throughout Europe, North America and Australia. I use milk thistle interchangeably with blessed thistle. Both herbs have much the same action, although milk thistle is considered a more potent liver tonic.

Milk thistle possesses the unique ability to inhibit factors responsible for liver damage, while nourishing the production of new liver cells (every cell in the liver is replaced in a six week cycle). It is a superlative ally in protecting the liver from the damaging effects of environmental chemicals, pollutants, synthetic hormones, alcohol, chemotherapy, steroids, heavy metals and most drugs. Some of milk thistle's liver-protecting effects are a function of silybin, an antioxidant and free radical scavenger more powerful than vitamins C and A. Silybin alters the liver cell membrane structure, blocking the absorption of damaging substances. Silybin has been proven to prevent poisoning from the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) if taken before ingesting the mushroom.

I use fresh milk thistle seeds (with the hulls still attached) or dried seeds to make milk thistle seed tincture. A dose is 20-30 drops in water daily or as needed, or a teaspoon of freshly ground dried seed. Milk thistle seed tincture is an excellent liver tonic and can help reverse jaundice in babies. If a mother drinks a cup of dried seed infusion, or takes 20 drops of tincture in water before or during nursing, the medicinal action of the herb is transferred to baby via her breast milk.

Eclectic physicians used milk thistle to treat those with varicose veins or menstrual difficulties, to tone the liver, spleen and kidneys, to stimulate the production of breast milk and the secretion of bile, and against depression. I understand that milk thistle is also a stomach and lung tonic, and a demulcent.

In Southern Italia, Silybum marianum is widespread and familiar along roadsides, the edges of pastures and near barnyards. It’s common names include Cardo di Santa Maria, cardo lottario and cardo mariano. The root has diuretic and liver-detoxifying activity. The seeds are dried and steeped in boiling water; the resulting liquid, added to milk, causes curdling. The tender sprouts are picked in spring long before blooming - when they are edible - and eaten like artichokes, either cooked or raw.

Healers around the world use milk thistle successfully to prevent and treat all forms of liver dysfunction, including cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice, necrosis and liver damage due to alcohol and drug abuse.

Flower Essence Milk thistle flower essence aids in clearing deeply entrenched anger from the system, often the result of family issues.

Magical Lore Milk thistle flowering spikes were traditionally carried for protection during pregnancy and the flowers were placed in a magical bag, or hung by the bed, sometimes combined with motherwort.

Culture Milk thistle is a biennial plant in its native habitats, but we grow it as an annual in Maine. The plant begins as a rosette of green and white leaves, wavy at the edges and lined with sharp thorns. In midsummer, milk thistle sends up a single stalk topped with a huge purple flower. The thistle flower fades and is replaced by white, fuzzy, silky threads sticking out of the seed pods. At the end of each thread is a dark brown liver-loving seed. Harvest by gently extracting the white fuzz (with seeds attached), being careful of the thorny seed pods and leaves. There is no need to separate the seed from the silk to make medicine.

I tincture fresh seeds in alcohol or vinegar and dry some in shallow baskets, pods and all. I mix seeds in equal parts with assorted black peppercorns, place it in a hand grinder, and use this “good for your liver mix” any time I want to add pepper to a dish. They’re good in anything from salads to stew.

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