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Nutrient - Milk thistle - Herbal focus

By Debbie Paddington Dip ION

Silybum marianum, commonly known as milk thistle, silymarin, holy thistle or Mary thistle, is an annual or biannual plant and a member of the Asteraceae family, which includes asters, ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies and artichokes. "Silybum" is the name the Greek physician Dioscorides gave to edible thistles, and "marianum" comes from the legend that the white veins running through the plant's leaves were caused by a drop of the Virgin Mary's milk. Although native to the Mediterranean region, milk thistle spreads quickly and is now found throughout the world. The stems of the plant can reach a height of one to three metres and have wide leaves and large disc-shaped pink to purple solitary flowers at the end of the stem. The small, hard-skinned fruit is brown, spotted and shiny. Milk thistle supplements are made from the seed of the plant. They contain the antioxidant silymarin, which is thought to be responsible for milk thistle's beneficial effects. Silymarin is a combination of three different flavonoid compounds – silybinin, silidyanin and silychristin. Flavonoids are a group of substances that are present in most plants and are concentrated in the seeds, fruit skin or peel, bark and flowers. A great number of plant remedies contain flavonoids, which have been reported as having useful properties.

Milk thistle has had a traditional use for over 2,000 years. Some of the earliest people to use and write about milk thistle were ancient Greek and Roman physicians and herbalists, including Theophrastus in the fourth century BC and by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD. The herbalist Nicholas Culpepper (1616-54) recommended milk thistle for a variety of ailments, particularly supporting digestive function, including stomach, liver, spleen and gall bladder problems. It was also used to reduce the effect of toxins, such as alcohol and poisonous mushrooms, on the liver. All parts of the milk thistle plant have been eaten as food in European countries, and its seeds have been made into a drink similar to coffee. In the United States, milk thistle enjoyed popularity in the 19th century with the Eclectics movement, an officially recognised branch of North American medicine that predominantly used Native American herbs. So popular was milk thistle that a tincture of the whole plant was listed in the first United States Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia. Today, milk thistle is a useful remedy to take to help counteract the excesses of modern life and the feeling of the “morning after”, as it can be used to relieve the symptoms associated with occasional over indulgence of food and drink, such as indigestion and upset stomach. 

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