Milk Thistle not more of your dam thistles…

Carduus (or Silybum) marianus



First of all… Outlander…

Well I have been avidly watching Outlander Season 3 waiting for some of my medicinal friends to arrive. I know many are longing for the print shop reunion of Jamie and Claire. I, however, was beginning to wonder if we would ever hear from the plant world in Outlander again.

Finally in episode 3 Jamie gives Murtugh milk thistle and they discuss Claire, though not by name.

Jamie is using mashed leaves and stems. Murtugh is poorly with a chronic cough. His skin is broken. He has been bitten by rats. They are in prison.

“You’ve been bitten again” – Jamie

“Och, not more of your dam thistles” – Murtugh

Traditionally all parts were utilised medicinally. These were eaten raw or boiled. Modern use tends to use the seeds.

Where does it grow?

milk thistle not more of your dam thistlesIt is a fairly obvious looking thistle flowerhead. However, it is easily identified from other thistles by the leaves.

Native to the south west of Europe and introduced to northern areas. In the British Isles its appearance decreases further north although it is found along the east coast of Scotland. It can be found growing on waste ground and cultivated grounds but seems to prefer the coast (Barker).

So the name…

Coombes believes the scientific name means Our Lady’s Milk Thistle. This relates to the Virgin Mary said to have dropped milk on the leaves causing the white mottling.

Traditional & Modern Use (compare & contrast)

Leading on from the discussion above of traditional versus modern plant part used I thought I would compare and contrast the usage.

milk thistle not more of your dam thistlesCulpeper chose milk thistle to prevent and cure infection of the plague. He described milk thistle as opening obstructions of the liver and spleen and useful for jaundice.

In addition, he believed it provoked urine and could break and expel urinary stones. Incidentally he utilised the seed in distilled water. In addition to internal use he applied externally with sponges or cloths to the liver area or the heart area to cool. Another recommendation was to boil the plant having removed the prickles to avoid choking on them. This he believed was an excellent blood cleanser.

Moving forward to Mills he advised traditionally widely used in Europe to stimulate the flow of milk in nursing mothers and also as a general digestive tonic. However, he states that in more recent years following extensive research in Germany, the herb has increased in popularity for liver disorders.

lost and found again…

It appears the uses for liver in Culpeper’s era dwindled. Thereafter, for a period of time, considered more of a bitter remedy. That is until more recently, re-discovered by modern research. Traditional use for expelling urinary stones appears to be a thing of the past.

Modern day herbalist Mills describes milk thistle a galactogogue, digestive tonic and specifically a liver protector. While Menzies-Trull describes the key actions as hepatic trophorestorative, cholagogue and choleretic.

Menzies-Trull indicates the herb for varicose veins, to reduce biliary cholesterol, for hepatitis, jaundice, spleen enlargement, pruritus (itchy skin), haemorrhoids, and alcohol abuse and for the fatty liver of cirrhosis (action of the constituent silymarin). In addition he recommends milk thistle for dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and ulcers.

Menzies-Trull’s recommendations for the skin seem to link in with Culpeper’s belief in using the herb as a blood cleanser.

Interestingly, David Hoffmann recommends, in combination with other herbs, for hyperactivity in children. He adds as chemical irritants such as pollutants (heavy metals) or artificial food additives (colourings, flavourings) have a role in hyperactivity, aiding liver detoxification is essential.

My own thoughts and use…

I do find milk thistle of enormous benefit in liver conditions. I have used it combined, with other herbs, for menopause. Too many wandering hormones, itching skin, general liver-ishness and lethargy. However, I sometimes prefer dandelion depending on the patient.

I have also prescribed in tincture or decoction for haemorrhoids in conjunction with an ointment for external use.

Useful in a herbal blend for headaches caused by digestive upset too. This includes those caused by partaking in a little too much alcohol!

The use of the plant as a bitter rather than specifically for the liver I find intriguing. I personally find the taste sweet rather than bitter.

Preparation and Dosage

I most often use fresh plant tincture. I have found it easier for patients. Occasionally I have used decoctions.

Barker asks his patients to powder the whole fruits in a coffee grinder and sprinkle into a glass of water.

One of my tutors, I believe if may have been Maureen Robertson, recommended grinding the seeds and adding to porridge. I particularly like the above two seed preparations. However, I have found, in practice it is often impractical for most patients.

Alternatively Barker suggests an infusion of the powder or a decoction of the whole fruits. If tincture preferred Barker recommends 2ml three times a day of a 1:5 in 25% alcohol. For tincture use I personally prefer 45% alcohol.

A little bit of science…

Approximately 3% of milk thistle is the constituent silymarin, a flavanone lignan. A known anti-oxidant (Menzies-Trull). He describes the herb as having an ability to increase production of hepatocytes and to stabilise the outer membrane of the hepatocytes which thereby increases antioxidant levels by 35% aiding the liver in ridding the body of free radicals. Phew! He believes it also increases liver enzymes and blocks the release of histamine. This would suggest a possible use in allergic reactions.

Silymarin stimulates liver cell regeneration. Used as a liver protector and in treatment of liverish conditions like hepatitis and cirrhosis. No known side effects. A safe herb to use for pregnant women, as well as children and the elderly (Chevallier).

Clinical data supports use in treatment of acute or chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis induced by alcohol, drugs or toxins (WHO Monographs).

and some energetics…

Culpeper described milk thistle a temperate herb. This generally means it is closest to our own body. I believe this highlights the general safety of this particular medicinal ally.

Culpeper associated this herb with the plant Jupiter with a cooling effect externally. However, Tobyn describes Jupiter hot and moist. Perhaps milk thistle works by drawing the heat thereby providing the cooling effect. Tobyn also notes Jupiter specifically acts on the blood and liver relating back to Culpeper’s use as a blood cleanser and his indication for liver obstructions. It is also specific to the sense of taste, once again being hot and moist.

Doctrine of Signatures links the leaves, breast milk and the galactagogue action. The galactagogue use may well explain how the plant got its name.

A very useful medicinal ally even though Murtugh has clearly had enough of those dam thistles!

Author: Nicole

BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine / Diploma in Aromatherapy & Essential Oil Science

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