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Milk Thistle, probably better taken as an herb than hung around the neck...

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Milk Thistle, probably better taken as an herb than hung around the neck...

In recent years, Milk Thistle has become synonymous with liver health.  Modern science has proven what herbalists have long known, that Milk Thistle is a bitter herb that protects the liver and helps it heal from damage.  Plants for A Future tells us that Milk Thistle:

... has a long history of use in the West as a remedy for depression and liver problems. Recent research has confirmed that it has a remarkable ability to protect the liver from damage resulting from alcoholic and other types of poisoning. The whole plant is astringent, bitter, cholagogue, diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, hepatic, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. It is used internally in the treatment of liver and gall bladder diseases, jaundice, cirrhosis, hepatitis and poisoning. The plant is harvested when in flower and dried for later use. Silymarin, an extract from the seed, acts on the membranes of the liver cells preventing the entry of virus toxins and other toxic compounds and thus preventing damage to the cells. It also dramatically improves liver regeneration in hepatitis, cirrhosis, mushroom poisoning and other diseases of the liver. German research suggests that silybin (a flavonoid component of the seed) is clinically useful in the treatment of severe poisoning by Amanita mushrooms. Seed extracts are produced commercially in Europe. Regeneration of the liver is particularly important in the treatment of cancer since this disease is always characterized by a severely compromised and often partially destroyed liver. A homeopathic remedy is obtained from equal parts of the root and the seed with its hulls still attached. It is used in the treatment of liver and abdominal disorders.

Silybum marianum, the Latin name for this herb implies its association with the Mother of God.  In former centuries, it was often simply called Marian Thistle or Mary’s Thistle.  The green leaf of this thistle has white blotches and lines, legend stating that the milk of the Virgin Mother fell upon this plant and imbued it with great healing powers. Yet, its medicinal use was known prior to the advent of Christianity.

Theophrastus listed Milk Thistle as a medicinal herb, and Galen is said to have recommended its use for liver health (although I have not been able to source the quote) but Dioscorides mentions it more as a food in de Materia Medica:

Silybum is a broad acantha with leaves like white chamaeleon, which is eaten newly sprung-up [vegetable] boiled with oil and salt. The juice of the root (as much as a teaspoonful taken as a drink with honey and water) encourages vomiting.

Pliny the Elder recommended mixing the juice of Milk Thistle with honey  during his era (AD 23-79), “to carry off the bile.”

Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote of thistles generally (probably carline thistle), but specified both cardoon and “Lady’s Thistle”:

Anyone who has a stitch in his heart, or pain in any other part of his body, should take a little lady’s thistle and a little less sge, and reduce them into a juice in a little water.  When he is tormented by the stitch, he should immediately drink this, and he will be better.

John Gerard wrote of Milk Thistle as “Our Lady’s Thistle”:

It is called in Latin, Carduus lacteus, and Carduus mariæ: in High Dutch, Onser Vrouwen Distel: in French, Chardon de Notre Dame: in English, Our Lady's Thistle: it may properly be called Leucographus, of the white spots and lines that are on the leaves: Pliny in his 27th book, Chap. 11, maketh mention of an herb called Leucographis, but what manner of one it is he hath not expressed; therefore it would be hard to affirm this to be the same that his Leucographia is; and this is thought to be Spina alba, or White Thistle, Milk Thistle, and Carduus ramptarius: of the Arabians, Bedoard, or Bedeguar, as Matthæus Sylvaticus testifieth.

The Temperature and Virtues.

A. The tender leaves of Carduus leucographus, the prickles taken off, are sometimes used to be eaten with other herbs.

B. Galen writeth, that the roots of Spina alba do dry and moderately bind, that therefore it is good for those that be troubled with the lask and the bloody flux, that it stayeth bleedings, wasteth away cold swellings; easeth the pain of the teeth if they be washed with the decoction thereof.

C. The seed thereof is of a thin essence and hot faculty, therefore he saith that it is good for those that be troubled with cramps.

D. Dioscorides affirmeth that the seeds being drunk are a remedy for infants that have their sinews drawn together, and for those that be bitten of serpents: and that it is thought to drive away serpents, if it be but hanged about the neck.

Mrs. Grieves fills in the rest of the history of this herb and brings us up to its modern use in the 1930s:

The Marian, or Milk Thistle, is perhaps the most important medicinally among the members of this genus, to which all botanists do not, however, assign it, naming it Silybum Marianum.

---Description---It is a fine, tall plant, about the size of the Cotton Thistle, with cutinto root-leaves, waved and spiny at the margin, of a deep, glossy green, with milkwhite veins, and is found not uncommonly in hedgebanks and on waste ground, especially by buildings, which causes some authorities to consider that it may not be a true native. In Scotland it is rare.

This handsome plant is not unworthy of a place in our gardens and shrubberies and was formerly frequently cultivated. The stalks, like those of most of our larger Thistles, may be eaten, and are palatable and nutritious. The leaves also may be eaten as a salad when young. Bryant, in his Flora Dietetica, writes of it: 'The young shoots in the spring, cut close to the root with part of the stalk on, is one of the best boiling salads that is eaten, and surpasses the finest cabbage. They were sometimes baked in pies. The roots may be eaten like those of Salsify.' In some districts the leaves are called 'Pig Leaves,' probably because pigs like them, and the seeds are a favourite food of goldfinches.

The common statement that this bird lines its nest with thistledown is scarcely accurate, the substance being in most cases the down of Colt's-foot (Tussilago), or the cotton down from the willow, both of which are procurable at the building season, whereas thistledown is at that time immature.

Westmacott, writing in 1694, says of this Thistle: 'It is a Friend to the Liver and Blood: the prickles cut off, they were formerly used to be boiled in the Spring and eaten with other herbs; but as the World decays, so doth the Use of good old things and others more delicate and less virtuous brought in.'

The heads of this Thistle formerly were eaten, boiled, treated like those of the Artichoke.

There is a tradition that the milk-white veins of the leaves originated in the milk of the Virgin which once fell upon a plant of Thistle, hence it was called Our Lady's Thistle, and the Latin name of the species has the same derivation.

---Medicinal Action and Uses---The seeds of this plant are used nowadays for the same purpose as Blessed Thistle, and on this point John Evelyn wrote: 'Disarmed of its prickles and boiled, it is worthy of esteem, and thought to be a great breeder of milk and proper diet for women who are nurses.'

It is in popular use in Germany for curing jaundice and kindred biliary derangements. It also acts as a demulcent in catarrh and pleurisy. The decoction when applied externally is said to have proved beneficial in cases of cancer.

Gerard wrote of the Milk Thistle that:

'the root if borne about one doth expel melancholy and remove all diseases connected therewith. . . . My opinion is that this is the best remedy that grows against all melancholy diseases,'

which was another way of saying that it had good action on the liver. He also tells us:

'Dioscorides affirmed that the seeds being drunke are a remedy for infants that have their sinews drawn together, and for those that be bitten of serpents:'

and we find in a record of old Saxon remedies that 'this wort if hung upon a man's neck it setteth snakes to flight.' The seeds were also formerly thought to cure hydrophobia.

Culpepper considered the Milk Thistle to be as efficient as Carduus benedictus for agues, and preventing and curing the infection of the plague, and also for removal of obstructions of the liver and spleen. He recommends the infusion of the fresh root and seeds, not only as good against jaundice, also for breaking and expelling stone and being good for dropsy when taken internally, but in addition, to be applied externally, with cloths, to the liver. With other writers, he recommends the young, tender plant (after removing the prickles) to be boiled and eaten in the spring as a blood cleanser.

A tincture is prepared by homoeopathists for medicinal use from equal parts of the root and the seeds with the hull attached.

It is said that the empirical nostrum, antiglaireux, of Count Mattaei, is prepared from this species of Thistle.

Thistles in general, according to Culpepper, are under the dominion of Jupiter.

Michael Moore recommended milk thistle for anyone who drinks alcohol, “taken as a standardized extract capsule between shots.”  He also included this herb in three of his better known formulas in SPECIFIC INDICATIONS FOR HERBS IN GENERAL USE Third edition:


Oregon Grape Root................ ...........3 parts

Silybum Fluidextract ............. ...........2 parts

Larrea............. ....................... ...........2 parts

Yellow Dock.. ....................... ...........2 parts

Aristolochia watsonii............. ...........1 part

Mix from the fluidextract and tinctures. Use 30-60 drops (1 or 2 squirts) 3 or4 times a day. This is meant to assist cleansing of the blood, liver and lymph system when recovering from alcohol, drug abuse, even long-term overmedication.


Barberry or Oregon Grape..... ...........2 parts

Milk Thistle Seed................... ...........2 parts

Chaparral (Larrea) ................. ...........1 part

Toadflax (Linaria).................. ...........1 part

Echinacea....... ....................... ...........1 part

Burdock Rt or Seed................ ...........1 part

Yellow Dock.. ....................... ...........1 part

Leptandra or Blue Flag Rt ..... ...........1 part

An old-fashioned "shotgun" formula. Grind well and encapsulate. Echinacea is the only one of these herb that deteriorates in a powdered form, so the best compromise would be to keep it as a rather coarse grind, the rest as fine a powder as desired. Materia Medica Lesson 10 - page 4 Useful for passive liver "heaviness", with periodic light stools and/or frontal headaches brought on by overeating or eating rich foods when tired. Look for greasy hair, acne on the cheeks (both kinds of cheeks) and acne around the mouth. It should be tried for those that regularly work with solvents or that drink regularly, whether in moderation or excess. In general, for those that regularly eat before going to bet and are slow in waking, grouchy and sluggish in the morning...they also have to cut back on the snacks. DOSE: Pronounced liver dysfunction, but w/out pathology: 2 caps, 3X a day. No overt symtoms, but having many of the risks mentioned: 1 cap, 3X a day.


Burdock Root FE...................2 parts

Dandelion Root FE................2 parts

Milk Thistle Seeds.................2 parts

Larrea............. .......................1 part

Tribulus (Puncture Vine).......1 part

Mix from Burdock and Dandelion Fluidextracts (1:1 strength) strong Milk Thistle Seed Tincture (1:2, 75% alcohol), dry Larrea and Tribulus tinctures (1:5) Use 30-60 drops to 3X a day, and decrease protein and fat consumption by at least one third. A constitutional tonic for those with anabolic excess.

Simply put, Milk Thistle is an essential herb for modern life regardless if one drinks alcohol or not.  We are besieged by solvents, toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals on a daily basis.  Our foods are full of additives, our drinking water is contaminated.  We all must focus on liver health.  Milk Thistle should have a place of prominence in our herb gardens, not only for health, but as Culpepper wote, “This is a stately and very beautiful plant; and, if brought from a remote part of the world, would be much esteemed in our gardens.”

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: www.spreaker.com/show/southern-appalachian-herbs

He offers free, weekly herb classes: https://rumble.com/c/c-618325

Buy his new book: https://py.pl/d1YsC

Read about Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalist's Guide: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/06/paypal-safer-easier-way-to-pay-online.html

Don't forget about The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle.  

Click here to read about  The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/05/announcing-new-book-herbs-and-weeds-of.html


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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