Digestive Herbs: Protective Milk Thistle & Liver-Loving Chai
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Therapeutic Actions: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cholagogue, demulcent, galactagogue, heptatoprotective, hepatic trophorestorative, immunomodulant
Most of the organs of the digestive system a pretty obvious — even to those without a shred of anatomy & physiology knowledge. After all, the digestive system is relatively mechanical – we chew (mouth), we swallow (esophagus), we churn the food (stomach), then we, ummm, eliminate (bowel). However, with our modern lifestyles, perhaps the most overlooked and overworked organ in our entire body is our lovely ole liver.
The liver is a smart organ. It participates in all aspects of digestion, absorption, and the processing of waste materials in the foods we eat by serving as the main “clearing house” for the blood flow coming from the stomach. It is the chief organ in charge metabolism for all the substances we put into our bodies – food, fluids, and drugs (prescription, herbal, illicit, and otherwise). As the main filter for the body, it traps and prepares toxic substances for elimination via its incredibly efficient detoxification process.
However, there are times that diet, lifestyle, medications and other factors slow or impair liver function. We need a protective boost. We need a “spring cleaning”. We need something… And here we look to a favored plant ally: Milk Thistle
Milk Thistle Medicinal Benefits
When one sets out learning about herbs, it is easy to get confused about the myriad of uses one particular herb may have. But milk thistle seems to be unequivocally associated with the liver (perhaps the gall bladder and pancreas to a far lesser degree). Milk thistle is called for in instances of a toxic, and/or congested liver – the liver that has weakened by constant excess.
Carbohydrates, alcohols, fatty foods and all around poor nutritional hygiene contribute to a liver that is bogged down, heavy and wont to send out emergency flare symptoms like headaches, dark under eye circles, skin eruptions such as acne and rashes. Other signs of a congested liver include reproductive and hormonal imbalances. Milk thistle lends the liver a helping hand by assisting the organ in its natural detoxification process, while also offering protection at a cellular level. The active constituent “cocktail” known as silymarin has been indicated in studies for possible benefits in cirrhosis, hepatitis, and liver cancer patients.
Much has also been made about silymarin’s ability to ameliorate the effect of amanita (a type of toxic mushroom) poisoning. Silybin (a constituent of milk thistle/silymarin) is a clinical antidote to the poisoning. However, it should be noted that the silybin prepared for medical use is a standardized extract. This concentration may not be achievable by tincturing at home. Treat mushroom poisoning (or any poisoning) as a potentially life-threatening emergency and seek immediate medical attention.
Additionally, milk thistle may be effective to address cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation) and may help type II diabetics with blood sugar regulation (both are serious conditions requiring medical care).
Milk Thistle Identification
Milk thistle is quite obviously a member of the thistle sub-family – a family unforgettably recognizable, and altogether prickly. This thistle is characterized by white-veined, spiny leaves and a violet-pink flower protected by spiny bracts. It is common to disturbed soils on both coasts of North America, as well as the southern states. Milk thistle is considered highly invasive and potentially toxic to livestock. The leaves and roots are edible and medicinal but it’s the seeds that contain the greatest concentration of silymarin.
Milk Thistle Safety & Dosage
A herb with such profound medicinal values often comes with a list of potential contraindications. However, there is surprisingly little worry about using milk thistle. I have even seen a study involving IVF patients which found the herbs no negative effects on follicular development. Yet another study indicated that milk thistle promoted increase lactation in the animal model. That being said, women that are pregnant or nursing, people that are taking prescription medications or being treated for an illness should consult their physician before using milk thistle or any other herb for therapeutic reasons.
Sources indicate a dose of 175mg of seed extract standardized to 80% silymarin for hepatoprotective benefits. Amounts up to 600mg may offer more restorative benefits. German Commission E suggests up to 15 grams of seeds are safe for daily use.
Milk Thistle Liver Loving Chai
While tinctures and ground encapsulated seed offer medicinal benefit, it is hard for me to think of milk thistle as a solely medicinal herb. The ground seeds have a nutty, malty flavor that could easily be added to granola, baked goods, or simply sprinkled over some yogurt. I am often inclined to create chai blends with my favorite medicinal herbs due to the warming nature of the drink. Also, because I quit coffee and I crave a piping hot mug of an invigorating elixir on the daily.
Chai is the new coffee in our home.
This blend incorporates milk thistle seeds as well as burdock root for its additional liver loving, blood clearing benefits. Traditional chai spices of cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, and pink peppercorns (because they are pretty) add some fire to the mix. Simmered in a milk of your choosing, this chai is an excellent way to deliver a little extra liver TLC.
Milk Thistle Liver Loving Chai
All the medicinal benefits of milk thistle in a warming chai latte. That's some good medicine.
- 2 oz milk thistle seeds ground
- 2 oz burdock root ground
- 1 oz ginger granules
- 1 oz cinnamon ground
- .5 oz cardamom pods crushed
- .5 oz fennel seeds
- .25 oz pink peppercorns lightly ground
Combine all ingredients and place in an airtight container for storage. NOTE: Use a coffee grinder to process milk thistle seeds and burdock root to a coarse powder.
To prepare chai simmer one heaping tablespoon of mix in 8-10 oz of a milk of your choice for 15-20 minutes. Strain, sweeten, and enjoy.
Bone, K., & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy: modern herbal medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Wood, M. (2016). Earthwise herbal repertory: traditional western herbalism. North Atlantic Books.