|Milk thistle seeds|
MILK THISTLE- A USEFUL HERB FOR HEALTH: MEDICINAL BENEFITS AND USES OF MILK THISTLE
Milk thistles are a common weed in the British Isles, although they are probably not native as they would appear to come from the Mediterranean region. They have been used for more than 2000 years in traditional medicine in Europe and are thought to be good for treating the effects of alcoholism as combined with dandelion they seem to reduce the craving for alcohol and also help regenerate liver cells and help build new ones, so reducing the cirrhosis of the liver which is caused by alcohol.
The ancient Greeks used milk thistle for liver complaints and for a number of other ailments. Pliny (23 AD-79 AD) believed that milk thistle could purify the blood and clear it of toxins. Also in the first century AD Dioscorides believed that it would help infants who had palsied limbs as Gerard, writing his Herball in 1597, tells us:-
“Dioscorides affirmed that the seeds being drunke are a remedy for infants that have their sinews drawn together; and for those bitten by serpents.”
Milk thistle was used to prevent snake bites by the Anglo Saxons, who believed that if the plant was worn around the neck they would be protected, “the wort if hung about a man’s neck it setteth snakes to flight.” This may have been because of a tradition which has it that the milk of the Virgin Mary dropped onto the leaves of the Milk Thistle, giving them their white veins. This is why the plant’s Latin name is marianum and why it is sometimes called Our Lady’s Thistle, although the Holy Thistle is also called by the same name, which tends to confuse the issue.
Milk Thistles are related to Globe artichokes and can be eaten like them if boiled with all the spines removed. The stalk can be stripped of its spines, boiled and eaten as a salad vegetable, as can the stem of the globe artichoke and the closely related cardoon. They are also related to burdock.
Gerard also believed as did others of his time that the liver was the seat of melancholy and wrote “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 would have included those of the liver and spleen.
John Evelyn (1620-1706) believed, as did the Physicians of Myddfai, from whom he may have got his information, that milk thistle promoted the milk supply of breast-feeding mothers. However it is recommended that pregnant and breast-feeding women avoid milk thistle today.
In 1694, William Westmacott wrote this in his “sive historica vegetablium sacra or a scripture herbal” bemoaning the fact that much of the old ways were being lost, overtaken by modern imports. It sounds a lot like the things people say today regarding those “Good Old Days.”
“It (the milk thistle) 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 the good old things and others more delicate and less virtuous brought in.”
Culpeper believed that the milk thistle could cure fevers and guard against the plague, as well as removing obstructions from the liver and spleen. He recommended an infusion made from the seeds and fresh root for jaundice and to disperse gravel and stones from the kidneys and other organs. He also recommended that the young milk thistle plant be boiled when young and tender in spring and used to purify the blood from toxins. Today a tisane is made from the herb to clear congested lungs. However this is made from the seeds and is better if mint is added to the tisane as the seeds are not too palatable alone.
The milk thistle is arguably the most important medicinal thistle growing in Britain, and it can grow to heights of between 4 and 10 feet. It is loved by donkeys and the seeds are delicacies for charms of goldfinches. People now cultivate it as it makes a pretty ornamental plant. It now grows throughout Europe and in California and Australia. The flower heads may be gathered when in full bloom but the seeds, which are brown, spotted and glossy, are best gathered in late summer.
Modern medical research has found that the milk thistle is indeed good for the liver and also the kidneys and pancreas. It contains bioflavonoids such as quercetin and kaempferol among others and the most important discovery as regards medical science is of silymarin which has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This is actually a group of flavonoids, namely, silibinin, silidianin and silicristin. Silymarin is the active ingredient which in vitro and animal studies have shown to protect against certain damage to the kidneys, liver and pancreas. It is currently being investigated for its possible anti-cancer properties, particularly against prostate, breast, skin, colon, tongue and bladder cancers.
Milk Thistle is also a known antidote to the poisonous effects of eating “death cap” mushrooms or Amanita phalloides.
Please note that people with a history of hormone related cancers (e.g. breast, uterine and prostate) should not take any milk thistle or products containing it and neither should breast-feeding and pregnant women.