Herb of the Month: Milk Thistle

Milk thistle (Silybum Marianum)

Milk Thistle is a great herb to start the year with. After the heavy holiday season has wreaked its havoc, and especially if you’re thinking of partaking in a dry January, a bit of herbal help might give your liver the energy it needs to confront the year ahead.

Milk thistle owes its name to the milky-white veins on its leaves, as well as its traditional use for stimulating lactation – or to use the proper word, as a ‘galactogogue’. More recently, a special flavonolignan complex called ‘silymarin’ has been isolated from its seeds and extensively researched for its liver-protecting properties.

Modern herbalists use Milk Thistle and other ‘hepatoprotective’ herbs whenever they feel the patient needs liver support – which is almost always! I touched on the importance of the liver in my last post.

How Milk Thistle works

First of all, it’s bitter… very bitter. And bitter herbs and foods have a stimulating effect on digestive function and bile production, through stimulating saliva and digestive enzyme secretion as well as increasing blood circulation to abdominal organs.

The compound silymarin, as mentioned above, is also thought to support the liver in a number of different, specific ways. To get the benefits from this compound, your Milk Thistle product should have been extracted with at least 60% alcohol. Always ask your nearest herbalist or natural health shop where to get the best quality extracts.

1. It’s antioxidant

Research in the lab has shown that silymarin both neutralises free radicals and switches on the cell’s own protective antioxidant mechanisms.

2. It protects the membranes of liver cells from damage

Silymarin may prevent the absorption of toxins at the level of the liver cell membrane by blocking binding sites and transport proteins. In an early study, it protected against changes in tissue structure in the livers of pregnant women and those taking the contraceptive pill.

3. It stimulates the process of cell regeneration

Milk Thistle might actually enhance the synthesis of DNA itself, helping the liver to regenerate. One of the amazing things about the liver is its innate capacity for total repair – even if 50% of the liver’s mass is damaged, it can regenerate completely within around 150 days.

4. It increases activity of cells in the liver responsible for immune protection

Very special cells in the liver called Kupffer cells are responsible for the important role the liver plays in immunity. Silybin, a constituent of silymarin, may increase the proliferation of Kupffer cells as well as stop them producing too many inflammatory chemicals.

Clinical research

Results from human trials have been variable, but there is evidence for using Milk Thistle in the treatment of nonalcoholic liver damage, alcoholic cirrhosis, diabetes, fatty liver and death cap mushroom poisoning.

It may also protect the liver from the effects of general anaesthesia when taken before and after surgery, and improve liver function after exposure to organic solvents and other toxic substances.

Some interesting results were also obtained from a trial investigating the liver-protecting properties of Milk Thistle during chemotherapy treatment.

When to take Milk Thistle

As a herb that acts on the liver, it is best to take before breakfast and before the last meal of the day, taking into account the liver’s nocturnal habits. You can also take bitter herbs during the day, before meals, to help with digestion.

If you think your liver needs some herbal attention but would prefer to act on professional advice, drop me an email at poppytheherbalist@gmail.com or fill in the form on this page to book an appointment.

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