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Milk Thistle

Read about the many uses of milk thistle and its possible side effects.

Milk thistle has been used medicinally for thousands of years. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Milk thistle has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

Milk thistle, also known as silymarin, is a hardy, red-flowered plant native to the Mediterranean. Now prevalent all over the world, milk thistle has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman physician and one of the first medical writers in Western civilization, originally identified milk thistle as a powerful remedy for liver problems.

Two thousand years later, natural remedies and complementary medicine are drawing increased interest from scientists and patients alike, and researchers are again looking at milk thistle as a possible treatment for liver diseases.

Uses of Milk Thistle

Traditionally, herbalists have used milk thistle to remedy liver problems. Milk thistle's effectiveness is thought to be connected to silymarin, a compound found in its seeds. Silymarin has been shown to repair and protect liver cells, reduce inflammations and provide antioxidant benefits.

Because of these excellent anti-inflammatory and liver repairing qualities, milk thistle is recommended by herbalists for a number of conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic. These conditions include:

  • Chronic hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Acute viral hepatitis
  • Liver damage from drugs
  • Cancer
  • Mushroom poisoning
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol


Though milk thistle has been used with great success for thousands of years, the scientific community has only recently begun to study milk thistle's benefits. Milk thistle is already a very popular and common herbal remedy in Europe. However, its acceptance has been slow in the United States, partially due to the long-held bias against natural medicine, but also because completed milk-thistle studies were either poorly designed or inconclusive.

A few recent studies have indicated that milk thistle does have liver-protecting qualities, and a meta-study on the research concluded thus far has led the Department of Health and Human Services to conclude that milk thistle is worthy of further research. The National Cancer Institute, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases are all conducting studies on this promising herbal remedy.

Side Effects of Milk Thistle

Though milk thistle is generally well tolerated, some patients have reported experiencing side effects, which may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Upset Stomach
  • Headache
  • Skin problems
  • Elevated liver enzymes
  • Allergic reaction (more likely in people allergic to other plants of the same family, such as ragweed)

Where to Get Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is readily available from most health food stores and herbal shops. When choosing milk thistle, it's important to research the source. Because herbal supplements are not considered drugs in the United States, supplements do not have to undergo the same rigorous testing that pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medicine does.

Some questions to ask when choosing milk thistle include:

  • Is the manufacturer reputable?
  • Is there a toll-free number or Web site listed to contact the company?
  • Is the manufacturer actively researching the effectiveness of its supplements?
  • Does the manufacturer make unverifiable or outlandish claims on its label? 


As with all complementary and natural health care, patients should consult a health care practitioner before taking milk thistle. Herbal supplements can interact with prescription drugs and affect measurements of lab tests, so coordinating natural health care with more conventional medicine is important.

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