Milk Thistle: an Ancient Medicinal Herb

Traditional herbal medicine uses for milk thistle.

Easy to grow and harvest, milk thistle is the lovely, scented flowering plant Silybum marianum. The active medicinal silymarin compounds in milk thistle are found in the entire plant, but the highest concentration is in the seeds.(1-3)

What Is Silymarin?

Silymarin is often referred to as the active compound in milk thistle. Did you know silymarin is actually the combination of 3 different milk thistle compounds? These compounds are silibinin, silydianin, and silycristin. Silibinin is thought to be the most active compound.(120)

Synonyms and Common Names for Milk Thistle

Besides its most commonly used scientific name Silybum marianum, milk thistle is also known as:(4)

Traditional Herbal and Modern Uses

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Milk thistle is known to be beneficial to liver health, and may even help patients with cirrhosis of the liver. But did you know milk thistle's antioxidants may help prevent or treat a number of diseases? Studies suggest milk thistle may even help keep your pets healthy!(111-15)

Industrial Benefits of Milk Thistle

Milk thistle may be useful for industrial purposes as well:

History of Milk Thistle

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Milk thistle was once grown in Europe as an ornamental plant and as a vegetable crop. It has also been used in traditional medicines for centuries. Its most common historical uses were for liver health.(62021)

In fact, milk thistle continues to be used in herbal medicines for the following conditions:

Milk Thistle Table 1: Traditional Herbal Medicine Uses
Type of Herbal Medicine Milk Thistle Uses

Ancient Greek and Roman medicine(22)

Arab herbal medicine(23)

A typical milk thistle formula would be to boil 3⅓ tablespoons of milk thistle in 4¼ cup water for 30 minutes, and take ⅔ cup 4 times a day for treatment.(23)

Traditional Chinese medicine(24)

  • Antioxidant(24)
  • Antiviral(24)
  • Cholangitis(25)
  • Cirrhosis of the liver(25)
  • Gallbladder health and gallstones(25)
  • Liver health(24)

In TCM, milk thistle is called Shui Fei Ji, and is used to clear heat. It is typically found in herbal tablets or capsules.(2425)


Traditional Pakistani medicine(231)

Early Western, English, and Italian Herbal and Folk Medicines(40222232-234)

  • As a laxative.(228)
  • For all "melancholy" diseases.(40)
  • Hair removal.(232)
  • Hangover relief (in a milk thistle spritz).(222)
  • Milk thistle combined with betony for memory loss.(27)
  • Relieve motion sickness.(226)
  • To blind vermin.(234)
  • Topically, for warts.(233)

Beneficial Compounds in Milk Thistle

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In addition to silymarin compounds, milk thistle seeds and flowers also contains a number of other polyphenols beneficial for health:

Seeds contain the highest amount of silymarin compounds. Depending on the species, milk thistle plants contain between 1.0%-8.0% beneficial silymarin.(1)

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Stachis officinalis.(27)