Milk thistle has been used for thousands of years in Europe, with one of the earliest recorded uses in the first century, between 23AD and 79AD. Early Christians dedicated the milk thistle to the Virgin Mary and called it Marian thistle because of its properties of encouraging breast milk production in new mothers. In the 19th century it was used to ease varicose veins and menstrual problems, as a treatment for depression and most commonly as and aid in liver health.
The origins of milk thistle can be traced back to the Mediterranean, but it now grows wild in the Eastern U.S. and California. Partial to rural areas and along roadsides, milk thistle can grow up to seven feet tall, invading fields and posing a threat to livestock. Milk thistle is very drought tolerant and a confident self-seeder, preferring sunny, well-drained soil. With thistle-shaped, purple flowers and spiny leaves, the milk thistle flower can produce approximately 190 seeds at a time. At one point in time, all the parts of the milk thistle plant were eaten. The flower heads were boiled and eaten like an artichoke, the spinach-like flavor of the leaves were a welcome addition in salads, and the shiny, brown seeds were ground to produce a coffee substitute or tea.
It is in the seeds where we find the medicinal properties of milk thistle. Silymarin is the compound responsible for altering the structure of the liver's cell membrane, forming a barrier to liver toxins as well as rivaling vitamins C and E for its antioxidant properties. There is little silymarin found in the other parts of milk thistle, so they are not considered valuable for their medicinal effects.
Milk thistle is usually taken by supplement, but there is no recommended dosage. Practitioners recommend following the package dose with a full glass of water. People with allergies to certain plants such as ragweed, artichokes and marigolds, may experience a severe allergic reaction to milk thistle and should avoid its consumption.
For the non-allergic, milk thistle may help protect you from several ailments. Before adding any supplement or new food to your diet, please consult your healthcare provider.