It might be hard to believe that a plant from the thistle family has any merit at all. However, one species known as milk thistle has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for a number of ailments, particularly for problems with the liver. The herb is available in capsule form, as a liquid extract and as a tea.
The active ingredient in milk thistle is a flavonoid called silymarin found in the seeds of the plant. It appears to protect the liver from toxins which enter the body in various ways-often from substances which are ingested. You may have heard that acetaminophen (sold under brand names such as Tylenol) may cause liver damage when taken consistently over a long period of time. Although the medication helps relieve pain, in the long run Tylenol would be seen as a toxin by the liver.
Alcohol is also a toxin when taken in large amounts over many years. This can cause cirrhosis of the liver or alcoholic hepatitis which may respond to milk thistle although scientific studies have been mixed. While studies show that the herb improves liver function and increases survival rates of those dealing with cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis, they are often done on a small number of subjects which makes it difficult to state conclusively exactly what milk thistle does and does not do.
It is no surprise, then, that milk thistle is used to treat viral hepatitis (particularly hepatitis C) as well. Again, results aren’t conclusive, but in one study 16 patients who did not respond to interferon and riboflavin therapy, did improve when given milk thistle.
Silymarin (the active ingredient in milk thistle) is an antioxidant and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties. This explains how it assists the liver to repair itself by growing new cells. This may also indicate that milk thistle could well have anticancer effects by stopping the mutant cells from dividing and reproducing, as well as reducing blood flow to tumours. One theory also states that silymarin may offer sunscreen protection and help reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Other positive effects of milk thistle that have been suggested are helping decrease cholesterol levels, especially in the gall bladder, and helping dissolve stone build-up. While studies show promise in the laboratory, more research is needed on human subjects to show just what effects the herb has.
You might well ask if milk thistle is readily available to us as a plant from which to extract the potent ingredients. As other thistles species which love hot dry conditions, milk thistle can thrive on the prairies, and is raised quite extensively in Saskatchewan. It is a fairly attractive plant with a long stalk capped by a pink or purple flower which forms the seed head. While some ambitious horticulturalists recommend growing it for ornamental purposes, chances are it will never become popular as a garden plant.
However, it will continue to be raised mostly for its seeds which are harvested in late summer on the prairies and ground up for use in capsules or tea. These can be both be purchased at health food stores. Some consumers drink the tea simply for pleasure when a few minutes of steeping is enough. If used for medicinal purposes, steeping time should be increased.