Milk thistle is an herb that’s been used for over 2,000 years as a natural remedy for a wide variety of ailments, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides was the first to describe its healing properties back in 40 A.D.
While it’s native to the Mediterranean region, today, it’s mostly grown in California, although it can be grown in many other parts of the world with a warm, dry climate. Milk thistle gets its name from the milky white sap that comes from the leaves when they’re crushed. It is often turned into an extract or supplement form so that users can enjoy its many benefits.
Most people actually consider milk thistle a pesky weed because it can grow tall and thorny, making it hard to even get near, but its medicinal benefits make it well worth keeping around.
As it’s considered to be a hepatic, galactagogue, demulcent and cholagogue herb, it has the ability to promote healthy digestive functioning by aiding enzyme formation, increasing bile production, reducing inflammation and soothing mucous membranes throughout the body.
Known for centuries as a “liver tonic”, this herb is high in a chemical compound known as silymarin, the active agent in its liver-protective abilities. Silymarin is actually a group of flavonoids that are thought to help repair liver cells that are damaged by toxic substances. It also protects new liver cells from being destroyed by those same toxins. Milk thistle has also been reported to greatly improve the overall functioning of the liver and is often used to reduce cirrhosis of the liver, chronic liver inflammation, damage done to the liver by alcohol and other intoxicants.
How To Grow Milk Thistle
Milk thistle is obviously a great herb to have around, and it’s fairly easy to grow. It grows to 3 – 4 feet tall, and features glossy, milky-white veined leaves and showy, purple summer flowers. All parts of the plant are edible, though its seeds are what contain that beneficial silymarin compound.
To grow your own, you’ll want to plant your seeds just after the last frost of spring. Sow them at a very shallow depth of about one-eighth of an inch, planting in groups of 3 to 4 seeds, spaced 30 to 36 inches apart.
The plants do well in both sunny and lightly shaded areas of a garden and will tolerate any type of soil, and even drought. If you want to start your milk thistle indoors, do so about two months before they’re due to be transplanted outdoors, also just after the last spring frost. It will take about three weeks before the plants start to germinate at a temperature of around 54 degrees to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re so easy to care for as they can tolerate dry and wet soil, so mostly, you can just leave them be and they’ll thrive. If they do become too weedy, deadhead the flowers before they set seed. The milk thistle flower contains as many as 190 seeds, with an average of 6,350 seeds per plant, and about 90 percent remain viable after harvest. If left untended, the seed heads will break on their own, making harvest impossible. If you plan to collect the seeds, do so before the plants fully mature.
How To Harvest Milk Thistle
Due to the thorny nature of milk thistle, putting on a pair of thick gardening gloves is a must before touching them. The leaves are extremely prickly, and the spines can easily penetrate the skin. You’ll know when they’re ready to harvest by watching for the flowers to begin drying out and produce silvery-white seed heads known as pappus. While the plants often mature at different times, seed production typically starts in the fall.
- When the milk thistle blossoms are dry, cut them off the plant from the base of the flower head.
- Place the flower heads into a paper bag, and then set the bag in a warm location to allow them to completely dry, which generally takes five to seven days.
- When the flower heads have thoroughly dried, place them into a burlap sack. To separate the seed, first shake the bag well and then press down on the flower heads with your hands to further separate them.
- Place a bucket on the ground outside, and then pour the seeds from the burlap sack into the bucket. While you’re pouring them in, the unwanted chaff should blow away, but if any ends up in the bucket, just pick it out and discard it.
- Store the milk thistle seeds in an airtight container in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use them.
7 Benefits of Milk Thistle
Now to get to the best part, what benefits can you reap after you’ve grown your milk thistle?
1. Liver support
Protecting and supporting the liver is milk thistle’s most well-known benefit. The liver is our largest internal organ and it’s responsible for performing a number of essential functions. It’s constantly working hard to help defend us from the many toxins in the air that we breathe, the medications we take and the food and drink we consume, acting like a filter to remove harmful substances from the body. It also aids hormone production, releases glucose into the bloodstream so that we have a steady stream of energy, detoxifies the body and releases bile into the small intestine so that fat can be absorbed from foods.
Milk thistle helps take some of that heavy load off the liver. It helps to rebuild the liver cells while effectively reversing the harmful effects of things like the pesticides in our food, heavy metals in water, pollution in the air and alcohol or drug consumption. It’s even been scientifically approved as a treatment for a host of different liver diseases like fatty liver syndrome, as well as psoriasis, jaundice, hepatitis, damage from alcoholism and more.
2. Kidney health
The benefits of milk thistle on the kidneys have been reported to “closely mirror the herb’s effects on the liver.” It’s also said to have promise for stimulating cell regeneration in the kidneys, and may even be useful for patients who are on dialysis.
3. Lowering high cholesterol
Milk thistle, as mentioned, contains potent anti-inflammatory properties which can halt inflammation in its tracks – inflammation is one of the primary causes of heart disease. This beneficial herb supports heart health by lowering high cholesterol levels and raising “good” or HDL cholesterol, as well as reducing inflammation and preventing oxidative stress damage to the arteries. Research conducted in 2006 showed that when the extract silymarin was taken from milk thistle and used in combination with traditional treatments, total cholesterol as well as LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, and trigylceride levels all improved, compared to participants cholesterol levels before taking the extract.
4. Preventing or controlling diabetes
Among those with diabetes, in this 2006 study, those who took silymarin for four months were found to have experienced glycemic profile improvements which included a dramatic reduction in glycosylated hemoglobin, which is a measure of blood sugar average over the prior three months, as well as reducing fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides, as compared to those who took a placebo.
It makes sense, as the liver is partially responsible for regulating the hormones, including the release of insulin, which is responsible for managing blood sugar levels. This research, coupled with the fact that the National Institute of Health notes that taking the main chemical in milk thistle silymarin, along with traditional treatments, can help control symptoms of diabetes by adding glycemic control, offers a rather compelling reason to do so.
5. Preventing gallstones
Gallstones affect at least 20 million people every year, and while it’s possible to have them and not know it, severe cases can even lead to rupturing of the gallbladder, and ultimately, death. When an attack occurs, the crippling pain can last from several minutes to a few hours or more. The pain usually starts in the abdomen and radiates to the chest, the back, and between the shoulder blades and may be accompanied by gas, heartburn, and indigestion.
As the liver and other digestive organs such as the kidneys, intestines, pancreas and gallstones work closely together, milk thistle is also known for its ability to prevent gallstones. Its benefits support both the gastrointestinal and endocrine systems by helping the production of enzymes and bile while also helping to detoxify the blood. Milk thistle can aid in purifying the body of metabolic waste, which in turns regulates the functioning of the gallbladder, as well as the spleen and kidneys.
Scientists out of the NYU Langone Medical Center reported that this beneficial herb lowers the risk of gallstones by stimulating more gallbladder contractions.
6. Better skin
The anti-inflammatory, detoxifying, demulcent and antioxidant properties of milk thistle can also help improve the condition of your skin, and even make it look younger. It can reduce visible signs of aging both inside and out, helping to prevent damage like dark spots, lines, wrinkles and discoloration. Research has shown that phytochemicals, such as those that are contained in silymarin, are effective at inhibiting UV light-induced oxidative stress on the skin, which is known to cause serious problems like skin cancer.
Studies have also suggested that applying silymarin to the skin reduces the damage caused by radiation treatment in those who’ve had cancer treatments. In one experiment conducted on mice at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Department of Dermatology, compared to the effects of strong UV light exposure on the skin of mice. The animals who received milk thistle extract showed much less damage compared to mice who didn’t receive milk thistle.
As we mentioned, milk thistle also offers anti-aging effects to the inside of the body, as its powerful antioxidants help to prevent free radical damage, removing toxic pollutants and waste from the blood and digestive tract. It also reduces the risk for many common and serious disorders that can come with aging, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver damage, prematurely aged skin, vision problems and cancer.
How to Use Milk Thistle
With all of these benefits, there’s no doubt you’ll want to grow your own – but, once you do, how is it used?
As a tea. One of the most common ways to take advantage of milk thistle is as a tea. If you want to start using it before your plants are ready for harvest, you can purchase it as a tea. Some local co-ops and health foods stores sell the leaves and seeds that you can steep in hot, almost boiling, water and make your own tea as well.
When you grow your own, you can simply crush the seeds and leaves to make a tea. Just place them into a muslin bag and then steep the bag in hot water for 5 minutes. Raw honey can be added for flavor.
Powdered. You can crush the seeds into a powder that can be sprinkled onto a salad, into a soup, or over a burger.
Salad ingredients. When you grow your own, you can take advantage of just about every part of the milk thistle plant by using it in a salad. Add the stalks, flowers, leaves and even the roots. They’re also great cooked in many dishes.
Add it to a smoothie. Milk thistle is great for use in a smoothie. Just ground up some milk thistle seeds and soak them in water overnight. Add a bit of lemon juice and chopped lycium berries and toss the mixture into your blender.
Eat them dry as a snack. The seeds can even be eaten dry, as is, for a nutritious snack. They’ll last longer and retain their nutrients if you store them in the freezer.