Milk thistle is a common roadside plant characterized by prickly leaves and a tufted flowering top. It is related to the artichoke and has been used as a food throughout recorded history. Its use as a tonic for a variety of conditions dates back at least as far the fourth century BC. Pliny the Elder in the first century recommended the use of milk thistle to improve the flow of bile.
Milk thistle is currently being studied for effectiveness against a variety of liver and intestinal disorders. It shows the greatest promise in repairing and preventing liver damage such as results from chronic alcoholism or hepatitis. Milk thistle is most effective on less severe forms of liver damage, while cirrhosis, characterized by irreversible scarring, is not improved by the use of milk thistle.
The liver functions as a filter for the blood, processing and removing wastes and toxins. A damaged liver can repair itself to a certain extent, but some types of liver damage are irreversible. Milk thistle seeds contain the active component, silymarin, which is a powerful anti-oxidant. It helps the liver flush toxins and has been shown to repair damaged liver cells. Because the active ingredient of the milk thistle is in the seeds, milk thistle teas will not be able to extract enough of the ingredient to have any effects.
Extracts made from the milk thistle have been used as an antidote to poisoning by the deathcap mushroom, which contains toxin that attacks the liver. In studies using animals, milk thistle was completely effective against the poison if taken almost immediately; the longer the delay between ingesting the poison and taking the antidote, the more the liver was ultimately damaged.
The most promising use of milk thistle is its thus-far unproven anti-cancer effects. Milk thistle has been shown to retard the growth of certain forms of cancer grown in the laboratory; animal and human testing have yet to show results. But milk thistle has been used effectively against liver damage caused by certain of the chemotherapy drugs.
There are few known side effects of taking milk thistle, which has been used as a food for centuries, although a very few people may be severely allergic. Check with your doctor to be sure it is safe for you. Milk thistle may also reduce the effectiveness of certain AIDS/HIV drugs and should only be taken under doctor's supervision in these cases.