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Milk Thistle / Silymarin

Milk thistle (silybum marianum or cardus marianum) is a plant used for treating liver disorders, breast-feeding problems and other illnesses. The active ingredient of the herb, silymarin, is found in the ripe seeds of the plant. The milk thistle plant has a long stem, green leaves with white spots, and a pink-to-purple spiky flowered head (which true to its name, resembles a thistle). The plant is native to Europe and grows in the wild in the United States and South America. Other common names for the plant include Mary thistle, St. Mary thistle, Marian thistle, and lady's thistle.

The medicinal benefits of milk thistle have been valued for more than 2,000 years. Silymarin was first isolated from the milk thistle plant by German scientists in the 1960s.

General Use

Milk thistle is prescribed for a number of medicinal uses, including liver disease treatment and prevention, HIV treatment, lactation problems, gallbladder disorders, mushroom poisoning and psoriasis.

Liver Disease

Milk thistle is thought to promote the growth of new liver cells, and to prevent toxins from penetrating through healthy liver cells by binding itself to the cell membranes. It is prescribed for cirrhosis, hepatitis, and other liver disorders. Several clinical studies have demonstrated that individuals with cirrhosis who take daily doses of milk thistle extract have a lower mortality rate than those who took a placebo.

Milk thistle is sometimes prescribed for patients who take medications that can cause liver damage (e.g. thorazine, haldol), or those who are exposed to liver-damaging substances such as lead.

HIV Treatment

Milk thistle is sometimes prescribed for HIV-positive patients to protect the liver from diseases such as hepatitis and from the hepatotoxic effects of other medications prescribed for HIV treatment.

Lactation Problems

Milk thistle is frequently prescribed to promote increased breast milk secretion.

Cancer Prevention

The active chemical components of the milk thistle, silymarin (a complex of flavonoids) and silibin, act as antioxidants. These substances have been shown to slow cell growth in some types of cancer.

Gall-bladder Disorders

Milk thistle may prevent inflammation of the gall-bladder ducts and clear up jaundice.

Death Cap Mushroom Poisoning

Milk thistle is the only known antidote for death cap mushroom (amanita phalloides) poisoning. Ingesting this deadly mushroom can destroy the liver by shutting down protein production in liver cells. Milk thistle neutralizes these toxins and protects the liver. Milk thistle may also be helpful in acetaminophen overdosage.


Because the liver neutralizes certain toxins associated with psoriasis attacks, milk thistle is believed to help prevent psoriasis outbreaks by promoting proper liver function.


Individuals who suspect they have a liver disorder should always seek care from a healthcare professional.

Milk thistle is considered safe to use during pregnancy and in women who breast-feed, but medical advice should be sought before taking any herbs and/or medications during pregnancy.


Milk thistle may cause mild nausea, diarrhoea and loose stools. The herb may also cause an allergic reaction in some individuals, particularly those with known allergies to plants in the asteraceae family (thistles, daisies, artichokes). No other widely reported side effects are known when milk thistle is taken in proper therapeutic dosages. People with chronic medical conditions should consult with their healthcare professionals before taking the herb.


There are no reported negative interactions between milk thistle and other medications and herbs, although certain drugs with the same therapeutic properties as milk thistle may enhance the effect of the herb. Again, individuals should consult their healthcare provider if they are taking other medications concurrently with milk thistle.

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