The healing power of milk thistle

The seeds of milk thistle are knocked from the flower and used as a medicine. In addition, the flower heads can be eaten without the green bracts, so only the colored part. The root of this plant can also be eaten; you can prepare milk thistle roots in the same way as salsify. The young spineless leaves can be put in a salad or cooked like spinach. Even the flower stems can be cooked and eaten. In addition to being a medicinal herb, milk thistle is a wild vegetable. Milk thistle is grown on a large scale in various places around the world because it is an important plant for the pharmaceutical industry. NB! This article is written from the personal view of the author and may contain information that is not scientifically substantiated and/or in line with the general view.

Botanical drawing of milk thistle / Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons (PD)


  • Naming milk thistle
  • Milk thistle in ancient times
  • Milk thistle in the Middle Ages
  • Milk thistle from the 16th century to the present
  • Active ingredients milk thistle
  • Milk thistle against toxic liver damage
  • Milk thistle for bile formation
  • Milk thistle and the portal circulation
  • Other medicinal properties of milk thistle
  • Consult a herbal therapist


Naming milk thistle

The botanical name for milk thistle is Silybum Marianum . Dioscorides, pioneer of medicine and herbal science, used the word ‘silybon’ for thistle plants, from which silybum is a derivative. Marianum comes from Mary. The Roman Catholic Church has given many biblical names to plants. It was said that when Jesus was born from Mary’s bosom a drop of milk fell on a thistle and that since then a new species of thistle has existed with white spots on the leaves; hence milk thistle. Dutch still has a few names for these plants: Melkdistel, Variegated Thistle and Onzelievevrouwedistel.

Milk thistle in ancient times

Dioscorides was the first to describe the medicinal effects of milk thistle. He recommended carrot mixed with honey for coughs. In ancient Greece, the plant was mainly used against white tide and pneumonia. Pliny the Elder, who belonged to the ancient Romans, saw milk thistle as an excellent way to expel bile. In ancient times, milk thistle was a widely eaten plant. The flower was eaten like an artichoke, the roasted seeds served as a kind of decaffeinated coffee, the young leaves were boiled and the flower stems were eaten like asparagus.

Milk thistle in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, Greek and Roman knowledge of milk thistle spread to the rest of Europe. The plant was not only found in the wild; it was cultivated for its medicinal properties. The plant was used for liver and spleen problems, jaundice, biliary colic, chronic cough and bloody diarrhea. The plant was also ground in its entirety to serve as animal feed.

Young milk thistle / Source: Beentree, Wikimedia Commons (GFDL)

Milk thistle from the 16th century to the present

From the 16th century, the liver-protective effect of milk thistle was seen as its most important property. Lonicerus, an important German physician, wrote in a herbal book around 1550 that milk thistle works well against liver diseases. John Evelyn wrote that when the plant was stripped of its spines it was an excellent wild vegetable, especially recommended for nursing mothers. Culpeper, an English herbalist from the 17th century, wrote that milk thistle is a good medicine for liver and spleen ailments. Milk thistle was the most important medicine at that time, especially for jaundice. Shulz said in 1919 that the plant has a positive effect on problems with female genital organs. In 1954 it was discovered that silymarin, a collective name for a flavonoid mixture, is the main active factor of milk thistle. Since 1970, milk thistle has been one of the most researched plants in the scientific field. One of the findings is that animals that have eaten milk thistle are immune to the green tuberous manite, a highly poisonous, deadly mushroom that causes irreversible liver damage. Milk thistle is used as a medicine when an inexperienced person eats poisonous mushrooms such as the green tuber lamenite.

Active ingredients milk thistle

The seeds that are knocked out of the flower head are used for medicinal purposes. The fluff is not used. The most important substance is the flavanolignans. Silymarin is included. Silymarin is a collective term. Milk thistle contains the following silymarins: silybin, silybinin, isosilybinin, silydianin, silychristin, silymonin, silandrin, isosilychristin, silyhermin, neosilyhermin A and B, 2,3-dehydrosilybin and silybinome. It also contains the flavonoids quercetin, dihydrokaemferol, naringin, apigenin, taxifolin, eriadyctol, chrysoerial and 5,7-dihydrochromone. It also contains the sterols cholesterol, campesterol, stigmasterol and sitosterol. Other substances that are contained to a lesser extent are: dehydrodiconiferyl alcohol, protein, amino acids, betaine, unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid, oleic acid and palmitic acid, bitter substances, catechol tannins, essential oil, sugars, mucilages, polyins and bitter resin acids.

Milk thistle against toxic liver damage

When someone has ingested a toxic substance, the liver will be affected first. In severe cases, the liver is damaged to such an extent that the victim dies; You cannot live without a liver. The namesake of the organs knew how important the liver is; literally the meaning of liver is: giver of life. Milk thistle has the wonderful property that it ensures that toxins pass through the liver without causing damage. Milk thistle has a strong antioxidant effect, prevents lipid peroxidation, promotes detoxification through increased glucorindation, reduces the activity of certain toxic enzymes, stabilizes liver cell membranes, stimulates liver regeneration after toxin damage, reduces liver inflammation and increases glutathione levels, the body’s own antioxidant. Due to this impressive range of medicinal properties, the herbalist can prescribe milk thistle for the following indications:

Milk thistle seed, photo taken by infoteur Herborist. / Source: Pere López, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.5)

  • Liver damage due to alcohol,
  • Liver damage due to medications,
  • Liver damage from poisonous mushrooms,
  • Liver damage due to odors, colors and flavors.
  • Liver damage due to all kinds of factory-produced substances such as: carbon tetrachloride, lanthanides, thioacetamide, D-galactosamine, too much iron dust, chemicals, paint, glue, solvents.
  • Viral liver inflammation, jaundice,
  • Chronic alcoholic hepatitis,
  • hepatic insufficiency,
  • Liver cirrhosis in diabetics,
  • fatty liver,
  • Liver swelling, liver congestion,
  • Cholecystitis or gallbladder inflammation, biliary colic,
  • Food poisoning.
  • In case of disturbed liver function or serum parameters,
  • Consequences of weak liver function, constipation, fatigue, bad breath, headache,
  • Skin diseases due to liver disorders such as eczema, psoriasis and acne rosacea.


Milk thistle for bile formation

Bile plays an important role in the digestive process. Milk thistle stimulates the action of the bile; it is bile-forming and bile-driving, which is due to the bitter substances contained in this thistle. Partly as a result, triglycdride levels are reduced. Elevated triglyceride levels may be linked to cardiovascular disease. Due to these medicinal properties, herbalists can prescribe milk thistle for:

  • Insufficient bile formation,
  • Dyspepsia due to poor fat digestion,
  • Prevention of gallstones,
  • cholestasis of pregnancy,
  • Motion Sickness.
  • High triglyceride levels.


Milk thistle and the portal circulation

The portal circulation is the circulation of blood from the intestines to the liver. The portal vein sends oxygen-poor, nutrient-rich blood to the intestines, stomach, spleen and liver. Milk thistle stimulates the function of the portal vein. In addition, milk thistle is haemostatic. In addition, your blood pressure may be lower due to liver disease. Milk thistle raises blood pressure to healthy values. In phytotherapy, this plant is a natural medicine for:

  • Portal hypertension, overpressure in the portal circulation,
  • Hemorrhoids, varicose veins, varicose ulcer,
  • Nosebleeds, esophageal bleeding if these are related to overpressure portal blood vessels,
  • Abundant menstruation, abnormal uterine bleeding.


Other medicinal properties of milk thistle

The medicinal properties already mentioned are the primary activities for which herbalists use milk thistle. In addition, there are a number of secondary effects of this stimulating plant:

Milk thistle leaves / Source: Giancarlo Dessì, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

  • In addition to the liver, milk thistle protects the kidneys from toxic substances,
  • The bitter substances make it a digestive and mild laxative herb,
  • It promotes breast milk formation,
  • It inhibits inflammation,
  • Milk thistle is diuretic and blood purifying,
  • It has a relaxing effect,
  • It is an antipyretic plant,
  • The pancreas is protected and blood sugar levels lower, making it a remedy for diabetes mellitus,
  • Because it prevents the formation of blood vessels in tumors, it is an anti-cancer plant.


Consult a herbal therapist

Anyone who wants to use milk thistle as a medicinal remedy is recommended to consult a herbal therapist. Milk thistle extracts and medicines in the form of mother tinctures, powders, nebulisate, liquid extract, ointment, cream and capsules should only be used on the prescription of authorized persons. A herbal therapist can tell you more about this, as well as about any side effects and interactions with other medicines or herbs. There are also beneficial combinations with herbs. All medicinal effects of this medicinal herb mentioned in this article are based on scientific research and come from Geert Verhelst’s Large Handbook of Medicinal Plants, a standard work in the field of healing plants. The book is used in phytotherapy.