Relief From Thistle Plant
by Katrina Stackhouse
People all over the world have used milk thistle as an herbal remedy for thousands of years. Thistle has been used historically to improve women's health, improve the liver function and cure some forms of mushroom poisoning. Currently, scientists are working to see if the plant can be useful in the fight against cancer.
What is Milk Thistle?
Milk thistle is a stout thistle plant that usually grows in dry, sunny areas. The plant has spiny stems and branches and usually grows to be between four to 10 feet tall. Milk thistle gets its name from the white residue it emits when the leaves are crushed.
What Makes Milk Thistle Effective?
According to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration, a flavonoid complex called silymarin is believed to be the biologically active component of the plant. The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMCC) reports that milk thistle is also "thought to help repair liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances. Silymarin also keeps new liver cells from being destroyed by these same substances, reduces inflammation and is a potent antioxidant."
Milk thistle is available in many forms but is mostly produced in over-the-counter capsules and as a liquid extract. Most milk thistle products are made from the seeds of the plant and contain about 70 to 80 percent of the active ingredient, silymarin.
Finding Relief with Milk Thistle
The UMMC cautions people looking for relief from this herbal supplement. The organization warns that many animal studies demonstrated that milk thistle can be helpful in protecting the liver, however studies about the plant's effect on humans have been inconclusive. The UMMC also recommends consulting your doctor before adding any herbal supplement to your health care regime to avoid issues with drug interactions.
Perhaps the plant's greatest quality lies in its ability to ward off poisoning. The UMMC recommends using milk thistle as an emergency antidote to deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) poisoning. "Animal studies have found that milk thistle extract completely counteracts the toxic effects of the mushroom when given within 10 minutes of ingestion."
The Natural Standard Research Collaboration also points to multiple European studies that suggest the plant's benefit for cirrhosis: "Milk thistle has improved liver function and decreased the number of deaths that occur in cirrhotic patients." The organization also reports that milk thistle may reduce the growth of human breast, cervical and prostate cancer cells. Because milk thistle plant might have estrogenic effects, the organization cautions women with hormone sensitivities to only partake of the plant's root portions. Additionally, UMMC reported that silymarin may "appear to stop cancer cells from dividing and proliferating."
Some of the adverse effects associated with milk thistle include gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal bloating, pain and changes in bowel habits, headache, skin reactions, and in some cases impotence. The Natural Standard Research Collaboration recommends people with allergies to plants in the aster family, daisies, artichokes, common thistle, kiwi or to any of milk thistle's constituents not use products containing milk thistle.