Medicinal Herbs used in Wildcrafted Herbal Products' Therapeutic Creams and Compounds

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Medicinal Herb: St. Mary's Thistle (Silybum marianum)

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A stout, annual or biennial plant found in dry, rocky soils in southern and western Europe and in some parts of the US. The branched, shining brown stem grows 1 to 3 feet high and bears alternate, dark green, shiny leaves with spiny, scalloped edges and white spots along the veins. The upper leaves clasp the stem. Large solitary, purple flower heads subtended by spiny bracts appear from June to August.



Milk Thistle

Biological Name:
Silybum marianum


Other Names: 
Holy thistle, marythisle, St. Mary's thistle, Marian Thistle, Milk Thistle

Parts Used: seeds, leaves

Active Compounds:  Most preparations are standardized to contain 70% to 80% of flavonolignans (silibinin, silychristin, and silydianin), collectively known as silymarin. This constituent is responsible for the medical benefits of the plant. Silymarin is made up of three parts: silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin. Silibinin is the most active and is largely responsible for the benefits attributed to silymarin.

Pliny, a first century A.D. Roman naturalist, stated that Milk Thistle was "excellent for carrying off bile". In other words, it restores impaired liver functions. Milk thistle supplies an antidote to the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), which kills its victims by destroying liver cells.
Ancients believed that the white veins that mottled the leaves of milk thistle represented drops of the Virgin Mary's milk, fallen there when she nursed baby Jesus.

Traditional Applications in Herbal Medicine:
    Liver support

Milk thistle is believed to protect the cells of the liver by blocking the entrance of harmful toxins and helping to remove these toxins from the liver cells. As with other bioflavonoids, silymarin is a powerful antioxidant. Milk thistle also regenerates injured liver cells.

The leaves of milk thistle provide a bitter tonic. The seeds are cholagogue. Leaves are used for common stomach problems like lack of appetite and dyspepsia. The seeds are used for liver, gallbladder, and spleen problems, and for jaundice and gallstone colic.

A recent study found that milk thistle may offer some protection against the toxic side effects of the common painkiller acetaminophen.

According to the University of Maryland, Medical Center

Many professional herbalists recommend milk thistle extract for the prevention and/or treatment of various liver disorders including viral hepatitis, fatty liver associated with long term alcohol use, and liver damage from drugs and industrial toxins such as carbon tetrachloride.

Mushroom Poisoning
Milk thistle has also been used as a preventive and/or antidote to poisoning by deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies have found that milk thistle extract completely counteracts the toxic effects of the mushroom when given within 10 minutes of ingestion. If given within 24 hours of ingestion, the herb significantly reduces the risk of liver damage and death.

Liver disease from alcohol
A comprehensive review by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) recently identified 16 scientific studies on the use of milk thistle for the treatment of various forms of liver disease. A European standardized extract of milk thistle was used in most of the trials.

Problems in study design (such as small numbers of participants, variations in the causes of liver disease, and differences in dosing and duration of milk thistle therapy) made it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. However, five of seven studies evaluating milk thistle for alcoholic liver disease found significant improvements in liver function. Those with the mildest form of the disease appeared to improve the most. Milk thistle was less effective for those with severe liver disease such as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is characterized by scarring and permanent, non-reversible damage to the liver. It is often referred to as end-stage liver disease.

Viral hepatitis
Despite the fact that milk thistle is widely used in the treatment of hepatitis (particularly hepatitis C), results from four viral hepatitis studies were contradictory. Some found improvements in liver enzyme activity while others failed to detect these benefits. None of the studies compared milk thistle with interferon or other medications for viral hepatitis.

Preliminary laboratory studies also suggest that active substances in milk thistle may have anti-cancer effects. One active substance known as silymarin has strong antioxidant properties and has been shown to inhibit the growth of human prostate, breast, and cervical cancer cells in test tubes. Further studies are needed to determine whether milk thistle is safe or effective for people with these forms of cancer.

High cholesterol
One animal study found that silymarin (an active compound in milk thistle) worked as effectively as the cholesterol-lowering drug probucol, with the additional benefit of substantially increasing HDL ("good") cholesterol. Further studies in people are needed.

Many people with liver disease and impaired liver function take 420 mg of silimarin per day from an herbal extract of milk thistle standardized to 70-80% silymarin content. Improvement should be noted in about 8 to 12 weeks. When that occurs, reduce to intake to 280 mg of silymarin per day. The lower amount also may be used for preventive measures. Milk thistle seeds can be ground and eaten or made into a tea. Use 12-15 grams. This should not be considered as therapeutic for conditions of liver.

Silymarin stimulate liver and gallbladder activity. Hence, it may have a mild, transient laxative effect in some individuals. This will cease within two to three days.

Other than this, milk thistle extract is virtually devoid of any side reactions. It may be used by a wide range of people, including pregnant and lactating women.

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