My introduction to milk thistle (Silybum marianum) came via Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, who sent me a free packet of milk thistle seed with my order several years ago. Since then, it's become a perennial part of my garden, as I allow a few volunteers to mature each year. My big old bumblebees love milk thistles just as much as they love the rest of the wild thistles. In those post we'll cover milk thistle benefits, how to use milk thistle seeds, and possible milk thistle side effects.
Milk Thistle Benefits
Improved Liver Health – Our poor livers are under siege from the amount of toxins in our food and our environment. It's the liver's job to filter all the blood in the body, and many elements in our lives – such as stress, diet, medications, chemical exposure and underactive thyroids – can interfere with its function. When your liver's not working properly, at can have a cascade effect throughout the body, leading to other problems with digestion, the skin, allergies, hormones and more.
The active complex of milk thistle is a lipophilic extract from the seeds of the plant and is composed of three isomer flavonolignans (silybin, silydianin, and silychristin) collectively known as silymarin. Silymarin has been used to treat alcoholic liver disease, acute and chronic viral hepatitis and toxin-induced liver diseases. (See Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future. on PubMed.)
Cancer – Integrative Oncology Essentials notes that milk thistle has been shown to have anti-cancer activity for numerous cancer cell types, including:
- and skin cancers
It has also been shown to increase the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy treatments.
Psoriasis – Because it detoxifies and contains natural anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, milk thistle has been used as an herbal treatment for psoriasis. Dr. Weil suggests extract of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), two capsules twice a day for at least three months.
Seasonal Allergies – MedicineNet.com recommends “Milk thistle extract of silymarin 140 mg three times daily for seasonal allergies (allergic rhinitis).”
Diabetes – Mayo Clinic suggests that there is strong evidence to support the use of milk thistle to improve blood sugar control for type 2 diabetics and to improve the symptoms of Diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease).
Upset Stomach and Acid Reflux – Milk thistle, in combination with other herbs, has been shown to reduce the severity of acid reflux.
Milk Thistle to improve milk flow in nursing mothers – Although some studies have linked Silymarin, the active ingredient in milk thistle, with improved milk production (See Clinical efficacy, safety and tolerability of BIO-C® (micronized Silymarin) as a galactagogue), blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus) in combination with fenugreek, is now much more commonly recommended for that purpose.
How to Use Milk Thistle Seeds
You can treat milk thistle seeds similar to flax seeds – grinding them and adding them to smoothies,or stirring them into yogurt or hot cereal. You can also put the ground seed into capsules to take like a supplement (seems like a bit much fuss to me since you can just buy the capsules, but you can do it if you want).
The seeds can also be lightly toasted and used like sunflower seeds in bread, salads or cereals. The raw seeds taste similar to dandelion seeds – just bigger (they are in the same family).
To toast milk thistle seeds – simply place the seeds in a dry skillet on low to medium heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until seeds are lightly toasted.
To make milk thistle seed tea, use one teaspoon of ground seeds per cup of boiling water, cover and steep for 15 minutes. Note: The beneficial constituents of milk thistle do not readily dissolve in water, so for best results, consuming the whole seed is preferred.
To make a milk thistle seed tincture (via NOURISHING THE LIVER THE WISE WOMAN WAY – by Susun S Weed):
To tincture seeds that you buy, simply fill a jar one-third full of milk thistle seed. Then fill the jar to the top with 100 proof vodka (no, 80 proof won't work). Shake daily for a week, then sit back and wait for five more weeks. After six or more weeks, your tincture is ready to use. Leave the seeds in the vodka for as long as you wish, even after you start using your tincture.
Nuts.com notes that “Milk Thistle seeds are also an excellent vegetarian source of protein, containing 18-25% protein by weight. Plus, they offer an excellent and well-rounded amino acid profile that perfectly compliments the more common nuts and seeds like almonds, flax, etc.”
Milk Thistle Side Effects
Milk thistle is generally regarded as safe. Side effects are usually mild and may involve:
- Stomach upset
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rash (from touching milk thistle plants)
Milk thistle should not be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
People with a history of hormone-related cancers, including breast, uterine, and prostate cancer, should not take milk thistle.
Do not take milk thistle if you are allergic to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, chamomile, yarrow, or daisies.
Possible Drug Interactions
If you are being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use milk thistle without talking to your doctor first.
- Antipsychotics — Includes butyrophenones (such as haloperidol) and phenothiazines (such as chlorpromazine, fluphenazine, and promethazine)
- Phenytoin(Dilantin) — A medication used for seizures
- Halothane — A medication used during general anesthesia
- Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
Milk thistle may interfere with the following medications, because both milk thistle and these medications are broken down by the same liver enzymes:
- Allergy drugs — Such as fexofenadine (Allegra)
- Drugs for high cholesterol — Including statins such as lovastatin (Mevacor, Altocor)
- Anti-anxiety drugs — Including alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan)
- Antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs (blood thinners) — Including clopidogrel (Plavix) and warfarin (Coumadin)
- Some cancer drugs
- Drugs broken down by the liver — Because milk thistle works on the liver, it may affect drugs broken down by the liver, of which there are many. Speak with your doctor.
Milk Thistle on The Menu
I've tried milk thistle in tea and coffee blends, but haven't used it to its full potential. Now that I realize the full range of benefits, I'm planning to use it properly (eating the seed itself instead of water based extracts). I'm hoping that this is yet another piece of the puzzle that will help clear my skin and improve my overall health. Plus, the seeds taste just fine and they show up in my garden anyway. Kiva Rose talks about 2-3 tablespoons per day for an adult male. I plan to aim for close to that amount, so I'm buying some fresh seeds in bulk, too.
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This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness. Please see a trained healthcare provider for serious illness.