Milk Thistle and the liver

Whether this year’s festivities officially ‘happened’ for you or not, one thing is for sure – we probably all needed to drown our sorrows more this year than we have any other year in living memory. And with the holiday season wreaking its havoc on our already pretty stressed-out livers, we could all do with a nice detoxifying, cleansing herb to help us hit the ground running in 2021. Are you with me? If so, milk thistle is your herb.

Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, is a native European thistle that owes its name to the milky-white veins on its leaves, which gave rise to its traditional use as a ‘galactogogue’ as it was thought to stimulate breast milk production. More recently, a special flavonolignan complex called ‘silymarin’ has been isolated from its seeds and extensively researched for its ‘liver protectant’ properties.

Bitters: herbal allies against disease
In general, bitter herbs and foods have a stimulating effect on digestion and bile production, through promoting saliva and enzyme secretion as well as increasing blood circulation to the abdominal organs.

Traditionally, herbs like dandelion root, barberry bark, yellow dock root and wormwood have been used extensively by herbalists for liver drainage and restoration, which is called for in almost any chronic disease – from skin problems to headaches, arthritis or menstrual disorders.

These herbs still form the bedrock of all modern clinical herbalists’ liver cleansing repertoires, but milk thistle has various specific regenerative properties on the liver that sets it apart from other bitters.

Marvellous milk thistle
Research has demonstrated milk thistle’s powerful antioxidant activity – it reduces free radical damage and switches on the in-built protective antioxidant mechanisms of human cells, such as the glutathione-peroxidase system.

Silymarin is thought to protect the liver cell membrane from damage by stopping the absorption of toxins through blocking binding sites and transport proteins. In an early study, it even protected against changes in liver structure during pregnancy and in women taking the contraceptive pill.

In terms of regeneration, the liver is pretty good at that anyway – even if 50% of the liver’s mass is damaged, it can regenerate completely within around 150 days. But milk thistle may help it do this, by actually enhancing the synthesis of DNA itself – which explains why in traditional herbal medicine it’s called a ‘liver trophorestorative’.

It also increases the activity of cells in the liver responsible for immune protection – Kupffer cells. Silybin, a constituent of silymarin, may increase the proliferation of Kupffer cells as well as stop them producing too many inflammatory chemicals.

Working with milk thistle
Results from human trials have been variable, but there is clinical evidence for using milk thistle in nonalcoholic liver damage, alcoholic cirrhosis, diabetes, fatty liver and death cap mushroom poisoning. It may also protect the liver from the effects of general anaesthesia when taken before and after surgery.

In my own clinic, I use milk thistle for its liver stimulant actions as well as its restorative effects. It has some pungent qualities as well as the bitterness, which make it very useful for people with impaired circulation to the peripheries as a result of congestion and heat in the liver. It helps mobilise nutrients into the circulation, relieving symptoms of cold and weakness due to low blood pressure and circulatory deficiency.

Not sure whether you need milk thistle? Signs of liver trouble include indigestion, headaches, allergies, heartburn, food intolerances and painful periods, to name a few. If you’re having trouble making sense of your symptoms and think they might be related to your liver, a herbalist may be able to help you.

Take milk thistle either as a tincture, powder or capsule first thing in the morning and then before each meal. To get the benefits of the silymarin ‘complex’, make sure your milk thistle supplement has been extracted in at least 60% ethanol.

By Poppy Burr
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Poppy is a UK-trained medical herbalist practising in Praia da Luz. She offers consultations and treatment in Western Herbal Medicine, incorporating Functional Medicine testing and nutritional strategies where appropriate. For more information, visit