Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is described as an annual, winter annual, and biennial herb that belongs to the Asteraceae family. The main stem of the milk thistle is stout and ridged.
The branches spread out, giving the plant an overall size of two to six feet tall. The most distinguishing characteristic of this plant is the white patches, or marbling found on the veins in sharp contrast the dark green background of the leaf blade.
The milk thistle has deeply lobed, broad leaves about 20 inches long and 10 inches wide. The leaf margins are yellow and tipped with woody spines. Each stem of the plant ends with a solitary flower, about two inches in diameter, with purple petals.
Milk thistle is considered detrimental to rangeland or pastures. This is because the plant is considered toxic to livestock with its high concentrations of accumulated nitrate. However, despite today’s concern for its apparent toxicity, one cannot displace the fact that as early as 23-79 A.D., the milk thistle was considered a medicinal plant.
Health Benefits of Milk Thistle
For thousands of years, the milk thistle plant has been used in Europe for purifying and protecting the liver. The early Christians dedicated the milk thistle to Mary, calling it Marian thistle. Science later on adopted this concept by bestowing upon it the name, Silybum marianus.
In the 19th century, the milk thistle acquired a reputation for curing varicose veins. Eclectics, physicians who used traditional means to treat diseases, used extracts from the plant to relieve varicose veins, menstrual difficulty, and congestion in the liver, spleen, and kidneys. Herbalists also attributed properties of this plant as a stimulant. They used it to increase breast-milk production and secretion of bile.
One interesting concept in traditional medicine during these times was the association of bile and other bodily fluids with different personality types. Since milk thistle is linked with bile secretion, herbalists believed that the plant could be used to treat depression, which was, according to them, a disorder associated with ‘black bile.’
Today, the milk thistle is no longer seen as a remedy for depression or melancholy. This is partly because people no longer associate bile with moods and science has established this claim to be hollow. However, hundreds of medical studies have been able to substantiate the fact that the milk thistle indeed has properties that could protect and heal the liver.
As a cure for liver problems, milk thistle is believed to be a ‘cleanser.’ About 95% of substances that we take into our body pass through the liver first before they are excreted through the intestinal passages.
For this reason, the liver is the last stop for everything, including nutrients and waste products. By helping the liver get rid of the waste products, milk thistle aids in keeping the organ healthy and protecting it from bodily harm.
Milk thistle helps maintain the levels of glutathione in the liver. Glutathione is an amino acid-like compound that plays a critical role in neutralizing toxins. Scientific studies have consistently shown that milk thistle can help prevent the reduction of glutathione levels and sometimes even increase them by as much as 35%.
When considering milk thistle products, do not go for teas. Milk thistle as a tea is not effective and won’t improve any medical condition. This is because teas made from this herb contain only small amounts of silymarin, which dissolves poorly in water.
Likewise, milk thistle leaves have no therapeutic value so avoid products containing this part of the herb.
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