Milk Thistle: A Liver-Friendly Herb

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Milk thistle is a member of the Asteraceae family and comes from the Mediterranean region; you can also find it growing in parts of Russia, North Africa and in Asia Minor. Other parts of the world to which it has been exported include the New World and Australia.

Greek physician and philosopher Galen praised milk thistle as an essential herb for liver health. Both Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides make mention of it as well. Dioscorides considered milk thistle an effective treatment for snakebites. Milk thistle’s botanical name is Silybum marianum. The genus name’s origin is the Greek word for tuft; the species name is Latin and refers to the Virgin Mary.

Milk thistle continued to a folk remedy for liver problems through the Middle Ages. In the 1500s, John Gerard wrote that it was an effective treatment for depression and emotional issues. Adam Lonicerus would provide yet another endorsement of milk thistle as a remedy for liver ailments.

Nicholas Culpeper mentioned milk thistle in the 17th century. He recommended it for curing jaundice.

In the 19th century, people began using it to treat other conditions including irregular menstruation and problems related to the spleen.

Milk thistle flavor profile

Milk thistle tea is a popular way to consume the herb, but it can be bitter. Most people sweeten it with honey or sugar to make it palatable. Other ways to cut down on the bitterness include combining it with mint or lavender. You can use all parts of the plant in the tea. The greens, seeds, and root can all be eaten separately as well. All are known to be bitter.

Health benefits of milk thistle

Milk thistle’s most significant health benefits come from primarily from one compound called silymarin. It is an antioxidant that is more powerful than vitamin C. It helps the liver to regenerate.

You can use milk thistle as a treatment or a preventative for conditions like:

  • Liver disease: The oldest use for the herb is as a treatment for liver ailments like liver disease. Milk thistle can help reverse the damage to the liver’s filtration system caused by alcoholism and other conditions.
  • Inflammation: As noted above, silymarin is a potent antioxidant. As an antioxidant, it is a powerful weapon against inflammation and can provide relief from conditions like arthritis and gout. Its anti-inflammatory properties also make it valuable for heart health.
  • Diabetes: Studies show that milk thistle can help to control blood sugar in people who have type 2 diabetes.

Common uses

Most people who use milk thistle use it as medicine, but you can also use it for food. Milk thistle was used as much for its value as food as it was for its medicinal value during the Middle Ages. The roots can be boiled or roasted similarly to carrots. You can peel the stems and cook them as you would asparagus. Overnight soaking is a good idea when preparing the stems as this will help to remove some of the bitterness. You can use the leaves like spinach both in cooked dishes and in salads.

You can also make tea with milk thistle leaves, which one of the main ways to consume it for its medicinal benefits. You can use milk thistle seeds to replace coffee by roasting them, or you can eat them raw. Experts recommend that you let the plant dry for at least a week before trying to harvest the seeds.

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