I was introduced to the milk thistle plant when I was 12. Brazenly—and perhaps rather foolishly—riding a pony bareback I slipped off my ride and fell into a thistle bush. It was a rather thorny but effective way to get to know the plant. I was pulling tiny needles out of my arm for months afterward.
A beautiful plant with spiky stems, bright pink flowers and lots of very tiny needles, milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is native to the Mediterranean regions of North Africa, Europe and the Middle East, although it now proliferates throughout the world. It can grow from five to ten feet tall. The plant is named for the milky, white substance that the plant secretes when the leaves are crushed.
When I began working at New Frontiers, a natural foods market that served the Salt Lake community in the 1980s and ’90s, I was surprised to see that, contrary to my initial run-in with the plant, milk thistle had powerful therapeutic properties. The market carried milk thistle in bulk, and in many supplements by itself and in combination with other herbs, mostly as support for liver function. Milk thistle is one of the five ingredients in Protandim.
For 2,000 years, milk thistle has been used as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, especially liver, kidney and gall bladder issues. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website, “Several scientific studies suggest that milk thistle’s active ingredients (especially a flavonoid called silymarin) protect the liver from toxins, including certain drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), which can cause liver damage in high doses. Silymarin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it may help the liver repair itself by growing new cells.”
Lab tests—in test tubes, but not yet in humans—have also shown milk thistle’s active ingredients to slow cancer cell growth. Milk thistle has also been shown to be an effective antidote to deathcap mushroom poisoning in animals.
So don’t let the thorns and spikes fool you. Despite milk thistle’s imposing appearance, it’s a powerful ally in keeping our bodies healthy and happy.