Updated 18 February 2013

Milk thistle

Overindulged? Take some milk thistle, an excellent herb for the treatment and prevention of liver damage.


What is milk thistle?

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a unique liver protectant (and hangover cure). It is one of the few herbs that has no equal in the world of conventional medicine. Studies support milk thistle's therapeutic benefit for liver disorders.

Key actions

  • Treats and protects against liver damage and toxicity
  • Repairs damage inflicted by heavy drinking
  • Detoxifies liver
  • Stimulates bile secretion
  • Increases breast milk production

What does milk thistle do?

By providing nutritional support to the liver, milk thistle helps maintain normal liver function. It has shown positive effects in treating nearly every known form of liver disease, including necroses, cirrhosis, hepatitis and liver damage caused by drug and alcohol abuse.

How does it work?

The collective name for the active compounds in the milk thistle plant is silymarin. Herbalists believe that silymarin prevents toxins from invading the liver and promotes new healthy cell growth to repair any liver damage.

Milk thistle is also thought to have an antioxidant action, boost the immune system, stabilise liver cell membranes, increase cell reproduction and prevent inflammation in the liver cells.

It also seems to protect the liver from the excesses of alcohol by eliminating hydroxy-ethyl radicals released when the alcohol compounds are broken down.


Breast milk

Christian legend has it that the characteristic white marks on the leaves were caused by the Virgin Mary's milk and the herb was taken by lactating mothers to increase milk production. It seems that this legend had some truth in it as the herb does in fact increase lactation.


Chemotherapy often damages the livers of cancer patients. Milk thistle can limit this damage and can also speed up recovery from the treatment's side effects.


The herb has been used for thousands of years in Europe as an antidepressant. Traditionally, the flowers were boiled and used as a tonic in spring to relieve the winter blues.

Liver disorders

Herbalists recommend milk thistle as the number one remedy for the liver. The herb protects the liver, supporting its metabolic functions and renewing liver cells. Milk thistle can treat all problems associated with the liver such as hepatitis, cirrhosis and jaundice. It also helps the liver during infections and alcoholic poisoning. Herbalists often prescribe milk thistle tablets for the long-term treatment of liver disorders.

It also treats:

Gastrointestinal complaints, sluggish liver (the symptoms of which include bad skin, fatigue, constipation, PMS and pain under the ribs), damage caused by medicines that are toxic to the liver and chronic and acute viral hepatitis.


Warning: Liver disease is a potentially fatal disease and patients should not attempt self-diagnosis or treatment. First consult your doctor and he/she should regularly monitor your liver functioning.

  • For hangovers: Take a 500mg capsule that contains milk thistle seeds.
  • Standard dosage is 100-200mg, two to three times a day, of an extract that is standardised to contain 70-80% silymarin.
  • Half a cup a day of a decoction of the seeds can be taken for liver infections.
  • For most liver conditions, take up to 10ml of the tincture (made from the seeds) a day in hot water left to cool.

Possible side effects

There are no known side effects with proper use. However, if you experience any adverse side effects or reactions, consult your doctor immediately.

Are there any potentially dangerous herb-drug interactions?

There are no known drug interactions, but one report has found that a constituent of silymarin can reduce the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.


  • Do not use milk thistle as an excuse to overindulge in alcohol.
  • Stick to the recommended dosages.
  • Liver disease is a potentially fatal disease and patients should not attempt self-diagnosis or treatment. First consult your doctor and he/she should regularly monitor your liver functioning.

(Zaakirah Rossier/ Health24/ updated October 2010)


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