Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

With all of the upcoming holiday parties, it’s best to use some self-control, not just with alcohol, but with rich foods and sweets too. However, just in case you overdo it, why not give your liver a little extra support this season?

Milk thistle, also known as silybum marianum, has been used for hypercholesterolemia, alcohol-induced hangover, cirrhosis, hepatitis, and general liver support. Some cancer patients have even used milk thistle to help them tolerate chemotherapy better. There’s more good news about the benefits of milk thistle, but first, what is it?

Originally native to the Mediterranean, milk thistle can now be found throughout the world. In fact, it’s considered to be a weed in most places.  I pulled up a number of these out of my gardens in New York. It is a prickly plant, with a reddish purple flower and grows to be very tall, 5 to 10 feet. When the leaves are broken, a milky white sap oozes out, thus the common name, “milk” thistle.

There are records of milk thistle begin used as an herbal medicine for over 2000 years, typically for liver, kidney, spleen, and gall stone complaints.

The active ingredient is a group of flavonoids called silymarin. Look for herbal extracts that have been standardized to contain about 70 – 80% of silymarin, for best results.

Milk thistle has been used for:

  • Liver disease from alcohol or other toxins like drugs and environmental toxins
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fatty liver
  • Hepatitis C
  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Mushroom poisoning, specifically deathcap mushrooms
  • Cancer prevention and treatment support
  • Protection against skin cancer in conjunction with sunscreen
  • Antioxidant properties
  • Anti-aging
  • Lowering blood sugar levels
  • Increased breast milk flow

Basically milk thistle protects the liver from damage and supports it in its many functions.

Milk thistle is a great addition to any detox you choose to follow. It is considered generallty safe and gentle, although it might alter the expected effects of drugs that are broken down by the same liver enzymes. If you’re on any drugs, let your health care provider know that you are taking milk thistle. Many actually recommend it!

It is considered to be contraindicated if you’ve had hormone-related cancers because it might have mild estrogenic effects. However, other studies show that it supports the liver in metabolizing and removing excess estrogen, so the net-net could be a positive. More studies should be done. It is used extensively and often prescribed in Europe for various liver ailments.

As always, speak to your health care provider about taking this supplement about any concerns or contraindications they have.

Copyright © by Bobbi Mullins, originally published December 2014. Updated November 2021.


University of Maryland.

Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Mark’s Daily Apple.

National Institutes of Health.