Materia Medica Monday :: Silybum marianum

Silybum marianum and your liver

Silybum marianum, commonly known as milk thistle is a flowering plant native to the Mediterranean region. It is part of the glorious and highly revered Asteraceae family, the sunflower family, bumping shoulders with plants like yarrow, dandelion, chamomile and burdock. It is cited as one of the oldest herbal medicines and respected widely by herbalists everywhere.


During Roman times, this plant was embraced by Pliny the Elder, a naturalist, who described the medicinal uses of milk thistle indicating this prickly medicine was "excellent for carrying off bile." In traditional Chinese medicine, milk thistle seeds are known as Shui Fei Ji and it is used in China specifically to protect the liver, increase bile secretion and protect against oxidative exposure such as radiation. Western herbalists, like me, use the seed of the milk thistle to make medicine and there are two ways to  make medicine out of milk thistle seed; standardized extract capsules and tincture.

Milk thistle standardized extract capsules are ground seed with a specific amount of the active compound, in this case silymarin. When taken in this way, the benefit of the medicine is directly sent to our bodies most important organ, the liver. The liver is the powerhouse organ in the body with over 500 jobs to do so as you can imagine, it can use a bit of support.

When taken as a tincture, which is when you use a menstruum, the two most common being alcohol and glycerin, to extract the medicinal compounds out of a plant it impacts the gallbladder as a preventative medicine.

We are going to talk a bit about the former use today, how milk thistle protects and improves liver function. Without going too in depth into the functions of the liver in this post (if you want more on how to love your liver, come to this class I am teaching on March 20th) it's main responsibilities are to process nutrients from food, make bile, remove toxins from the body and build proteins. That is a lot of important actions that our liver takes on for us. And for most of us, at one time or another, we repayed it very poorly by eating fatty and processed foods, drinking more alcohol than the liver could possibly handle and allowing stress to take over our lives! If the last sentence sounds like you, fear not! This is where our beautiful Mediterranean plant milk thistle comes to save the day! By taking a standardized extract of milk thistle, the dose ranging from 160 mg to 600 mg for serious hepatic issues, you will begin to protect and strengthen the functions of your liver. 

As a preventative it is perfect for solvent and chemical exposure. So if you are a painter, a nail or hair stylist, anywhere you are exposed to chemical solvents on a regular basis you should definitely be taking milk thistle. It also is a preventative for recreational drinking. Now, do not think just because you take milk thistle before you head out on a Friday night you can drink a bottle of Pinot but it is a great idea to support your liver to release the toxins that accumulate from drinking.

As a healer of damage already done, milk thistle can rebuild strength and function to the liver for people who experience hepatitis, cirrhosis or fatty liver. It is also for people like me who were living with an auto-immune response to a food that was acting like a poison to the body. For more on my journey, read here.

As how much and how often you should take milk thistle, I suggest you work with a trained herbalist. But a good range if you are a healthy person who did not knowingly damage your liver and you would like to use it preventatively, take 160 mg once a day before bedtime. The brand I highly suggest is Pure Encapsulations, Silybum marianum. You can find this locally at the best apothecary in town, Artemesia and Rue or if you are not local, here at Amazon. Yes, brands do matter so please choose this brand.

If you are curious to learn more about your liver and how herbal medicines do help, come to my class on March 20th at Artemesia and Rue. Spaces are limited so call the store to reserve your spot!