Used for more than 2,000 years, milk thistle is native to Europe. Products from this plant are popular in both Europe and the United States. The seeds produce a flavonoid complex called silymarin, which is the biologically active base. Silymarin consists of a mixture of seven chemicals. It has been used as a milk stimulant, for kidney, liver and spleen problems, and for menstrual pain. Published research with human participants has produced mixed results.
Modern History - German research during the 1960s examined milk thistle for active elements. Germany's Commission E (an official government agency similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) in 1968 approved a milk thistle extract as a treatment for liver disease.
Modern Uses - Use by generations of people for jaundice eventually led to milk thistle's wide acceptance by alternative medicine practitioners for treating alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, liver poisoning and viral hepatitis. Still, no definitive verification of its true effectiveness exists.
Research - One placebo-controlled study by J. Cosmet Dermatol used a topical application of milk thistle with methylsulfonylmethane for a month on 46 participants to treat the skin condition rosacea, resulting in favorable reaction. Another clinical trial, by Phytother Res in 2006, provides evidence that milk thistle may improve blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes.
Food - Europeans have used de-spined milk thistle leaves for salads for centuries. Stalks, roots and flowers were used as traditional additions to food preparations. Ground up for brewing, the plant's seeds were used as a coffee substitute.
Side Effects and Safety Issues - Despite the extensive use of milk thistle as a food, there is still no formal proof that it is safe for young children, pregnant or nursing women, and individuals with severe renal disease. Some reported side effects of milk thistle are upset stomach, headache and skin irritations. Though rarely reported, milk thistle may cause appetite loss, diarrhea, gas, heartburn, joint pain and impotence. Higher liver enzyme levels, though not common, is another potential side affect of ingesting milk thistle. Individuals with diabetes or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), or who take drugs, herbs, or any supplement that affects blood sugar levels should use caution when using milk thistle.
Warning - Liver disease is a life-threatening medical condition requiring licensed medical supervision. Any consideration of using milk thistle to treat liver disease should first be discussed with your doctor. Never inject milk thistle preparations designed for oral ingestion. Taking milk thistle while using oral contraceptives may reduce their effectiveness. People with allergies to the aster family of plants or to daisies, common thistle, or artichokes may experience an allergic reaction to milk thistle.