The plant

The milk thistle or milk thistle (Silybum marianum ) is a plant belonging to the Asteraceae family, characterized by long green leaves streaked with white and a serrated edge.

The flowers, which appear in early summer, are gathered in roundish purple flower heads and surrounded by thorny bracts, with very long spines. The fruits, called achenes, are black in color and have a purely bitter taste.

It is a rustic plant typical of the Mediterranean area, which grows spontaneously in uncultivated areas, in meadows and mountain pastures.

Components and properties

If the need arises to regenerate the body , for example after a period of overeating , milk thistle turns out to be the ideal ally.

Thanks to one of its active components, silymarin, it renews the liver tissues and frees it from waste and toxins , as well as helping to protect the liver from oxidative stress and inflammatory processes.

The fruit of the milk thistle contains from 1.5 to 3% of silymarin , a complex composed of three derivatives: silicristin, silybin and silydianin, which have a protective, anti-hepatotoxic and slightly purifying effect on the liver.

It is recommended in all cases where there is a need to carry out a delicate liver purification without at the same time giving up a protective action; it also boasts diuretic abilities .

Since it also has galactogenic properties, in some cases it is recommended for women who are breastfeeding. In fact, it contains a complex of phytoestrogens called flavonolignans which favor hormonal synthesis; it can therefore be considered a natural remedy to increase milk production.

How does milk thistle work?

• Modifies the cell membranes of hepatocytes to prevent harmful foreign agents such as toxins and alcohol from entering them; therefore it protects the liver from toxic and polluting substances

• Promotes protein synthesis and increases the metabolic activity of liver cells, stimulating their regeneration

• Transforms free radicals into stable compounds that are not harmful to tissues

• Promotes liver detoxification

• Acts against inflammation, especially in the liver

• Stimulates the synthesis of hormones involved in the production of breast milk, thanks to the presence of a particular class of bioflavonoids

• Helps with liver-related digestive problems (such as fat digestion difficulties), relieving symptoms of dyspepsia, bloating, nausea and abdominal spasms.

In 1998 , the European Commission recognized the use of milk thistle fruits in the " treatment of digestive disorders " and extracts containing at least 70% of silymarin in toxic hepatitis and in the "complementary treatment of chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. ".

In 2004, the World Health Organization ( WHO ) recognized as " clinically valid " the use of standardized milk thistle extracts as a "complementary treatment for acute and chronic hepatitis caused by the abuse of alcohol, certain medicines and substances. toxic ".

Between myth and legend

The legend, from which part of the name derives, tells that during the escape of Mary and Joseph to save Jesus from the infanticide wanted by Herod, the thistle covered the whole family with its foliage, hiding it from the sight of the pursuers.

While they were hidden by its branches, a few drops of milk fell from the Madonna's breast onto the leaves of the plant. Since it was stained with the milk of the Madonna, it was since then called milk thistle.

A bit of history

The extracts of milk thistle , known and used in folk medicine for more than two thousand years, in ancient Greece were mixed with honey to calm coughs . It was then used for a long time as a solution against bronchitis ; only in 1400 was it recognized for its detoxifying qualities and medicinal properties.

In fact, as early as the 16th century , milk thistle was used as a natural remedy for its purifying, haemostatic and tonic properties.

It was found that the substances extracted from the seeds proved effective in many cases of indigestion, intoxication, jaundice and diseases of the spleen ; modern science has largely validated the medicinal uses of this plant.


The fruits of the thistle are a delicious delicacy for birds, especially for goldfinches , which seem to owe their name to this plant.

The word cardo also derives from the term cardo: already in ancient Rome in fact the wool workers had realized that the thorny flower heads were perfect for combing wool, and for this reason in the summer they sent slaves to collect the thistles in the countryside, and then make them dry and use them in their activity.