Milk Thistle – Silybum marianum
Thistles get a bad rap. They are often looked at as the peskiest of weeds for their persistence and thorny nature that makes them difficult to remove by hand. But as is often the case with our “weeds”, thistles are also a source of some excellent medicine and nutrition (artichoke). The queen of the medicinal thistles is Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum). This beautiful tall thistle is native to the Mediterranean but is now found throughout the world and can be invasive in some areas. It gets its common name, for the milky white veins in its leaves and its traditional use to increase breast milk [today another thistle, Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) is more commonly used for this purpose].
Milk Thistle has a rich history of use and was revered by Pliny and Dioscorides for its medicinal properties. It has continued to be used extensively as one of the best liver herbs. In fact, Milk Thistle is one of our best liver tonics. Like another famous liver tonic, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), it is a gentle but powerful herb. Traditionally, it was used to treat liver inflammation and jaundice. Like dandelion it also gently stimulates the liver, improving digestion and absorption of nutrient. But unlike dandelion it has the amazing ability to heal and protect the liver.
Milk Thistle is a well-researched herb and this research has supported milk thistle’s use to protect the liver from toxins, including poison. It is most well known as a remedy for amanita mushroom (Amanita muscaria) poisoning, saving lives by preventing the liver from absorbing amanita’s toxic constituents. It has also been found to help protect the liver from the damaging effects of some types of chemotherapy. It can help the liver to heal and regenerate itself and is a wonderful herb that can be taken daily for those suffering from hepatitis C, cirrhosis and other liver diseases. It’s also a helpful supportive herb for those that have chronic gall bladder issues or have had their gall bladder removed. But even if you don’t have chronic liver conditions, milk thistle is a wonderful herb that can be taken daily to support healthy liver function.
Milk thistle also lowers cholesterol and helps balance blood sugar levels.
Traditionally, the young stalks and seeds were used but today the seeds are most commonly used. It is gentle and safe to use long term.
While Milk Thistle is most commonly used in tincture and capsule form, one of my favorite ways to use milk thistle is also in the kitchen. The seeds grind easily in a coffee grinder and have a nutty slightly bitter flavor. Here is one of my favorite recipes:
Gomasio is a traditional Japanese condiment that is made with roasted sesame seeds, seaweed, and either sugar or salt.
1 cup unhulled sesame seeds, toasted
2-3 teaspoons sea salt (or to taste)
1 tablespoon powdered kelp or other preferred seaweed (or to taste)
¼ cup powdered ground milk thistle
The above is just a starting point. Feel free to play around with the ratios until you find what is best for your taste. The seaweed can be eliminated as well or substituted with ground, dried nettles.
Toast the sesame seeds, placing them in a skillet on medium heat. Toss or stir continuously until they become fragrant and you hear a few of them popping. They will also appear slightly darker. They can burn quickly so watch closely. Once they are toasted remove from heat and pour into a bowl to cool. Grind the milk thistle seeds in a coffee grinder until powdered and place in a clean bowl. Mix with the salt and powdered seaweed (if you can not find powdered, you can do this on your own in the coffee grinder). Grind the sesame seeds. This usually only takes a few pulses. Don’t overdo or you’ll get tahini! Place the ground sesame in the bowl with the other ingredients and stir until well combined. Store in a mason jar or other airtight container. If you think you will take longer than a month or so to use the mixture, store in the refrigerator.
Sprinkle on stir-fry, brown rice, popcorn, salads, and more!