Q & A: How do I use Milk Thistle?

On the sidebar of this blog I have a note letting my readers know that I'm interested in writing about topics they're looking to learn more about. Imagine my excitement when I heard from Leah last week!

This kind of question is exactly the sort of thing it just tickles (!) me to answer. I LOVE herbs, I love using them, growing them, harvesting them, preparing them, researching them...yeah, obviously you get the point. I'm crazy for herbs. So let's get down to it!

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I got some milk thistle seeds recently and I have been adding them to my coffee beans when I grind them up. It’s more cost-effective than buying capsules or tincture, I don’t taste them at all, and I THINK they are good for me (liver support), but I have a few questions I wondered if you can answer:

1) Is my body able to benefit from it in this format (ground and brewed like coffee)?
2) What are the benefits of consuming it?
3) I live in Montreal - can it be grown here?
4) What else can I toss in with my coffee beans to pump up the nutrition?

Thanks!
— Leah

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)  

Milk thistle is a member of the Asteraceae or daisy family and originated in the Mediterranean but has since naturalized across other continents including North America. When it's mature, milk thistle is a tall and upright plant that can grow up to 2m when cultivated. It's a powerful medicinal herb but also quite beautiful, so it's not uncommon to see it grown for ornamental purposes. The plant will flower in mid-to-late summer producing solitary purple flowers surrounded by spiky, leather-like, bracts up to 5cm in length. The stiff long leaves are lobed with sharp spines, like other familiar thistles, with a white and green marbled variegation. The leaves are edible with a flavour and texture similar to lettuce, making this plant both a wonderful wild food and useful herbal medicine. The medicinal properties of the plant lay in those black seeds Leah has been grinding with her coffee. 

Milk Thistle Q & A

So let's get to answering Leah's questions about milk thistle. 

1) Is my body able to benefit from this format (ground and brewed with coffee)? 

The short answer to the question is no, not entirely.

Long answer: Milk thistle is a very powerfully medicinal herb and most of those properties are attributed to a constituent called silymarin, a complex made of several flavanolignans, the most active of which is called silibinin. Milk thistle's most promising medicinal use is as a hepato (liver) protective & antioxidant herb. I'm going to really go for it here and explain what that means for the scientifically inclined: 

  • Silibinin seems to have the ability to enhance the production of functional and structural proteins that allow hepatocytes (liver cells) to repair and regenerate parts of the cells that may be damaged or destroyed as the result of disease processes such as hepatitis and fibrogenesis 
  • It also inhibits a pathway that normally results in leukotriene, an inflammatory mediator, production which leads to prevention of Kupffer cell activation, a type of immune cell responsible for liver injury that may occur due to a high alcohol consumption or chronically high blood sugar 
  • Silibinin will act as a strong antioxidant AND boosts our body's own antioxidant mechanisms for protection against free radical induced membrane breakdown by toxic agents like ethanol or Tylenol
  • It also may have a specialized ability to protect against the poisonous effects of the "death-cap" mushroom Amanita phalloides!

Pretty kick-ass constituent that silibinin. Unfortunately silymarin isn't well extracted in water, even if prepared via decoction. A tincture of milk thistle actually requires a higher than average alcohol content in order to extract the silymarin, which makes even taking it via tincture a challenging affair - so much alcohol for so little herb! The best way to get the full benefit of the silymarin in milk thistle is to take it in capsule or tablet form standardized to contain 70-80% silymarin. 

2) What are the benefits of consuming it?

By brewing ground milk thistle seeds with your coffee you're missing out on a lot of it's more impressive medicinal effects, but there are still relevant effects of consuming the milk thistle seed through water extraction. It acts as a gentle cholagogue and choleretic for the gall-bladder, meaning it increases the production and secretion of bile into the small intestine to help with the digestion of dietary fats. It's also is slightly mucilaginous giving it demulcent properties that soothe the digestive system and have anti-inflammatory effects. 

So you're getting something from brewing ground milk thistle seeds with your coffee, just not as much as it has to offer.

3) I live in Montreal - can it be grown here?

Yes! Silybum marianum grows as an annual plant in temperate climates and biennial in slightly warmer ones. It's not a very demanding plant and actually prefers compact clay soils. Choose a dry, sunny spot to plant your seeds and sow in the spring as soon as the frost is gone when the soil is still cool. Don't forget to eat those leaves!

4) What else can I toss in with my coffee beans to pump up the nutrition?

Wonderful question! I have a few ideas:

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  • Medicinal mushrooms like reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus) are a wonderful thing to throw in with your coffee. The amazing immune modulating activity we attribute to these mushrooms comes from the polysaccharide complex beta-galactans which are very water soluble. In fact, a decoction of a medicinal mushroom is a much more effective way to use the mushroom then preparing a tincture.
  • Aromatic herbs I imagine would taste very good in combination with coffee (if you're not a purist!) and have quite profound medicinal effects 
    • Cinnamon helps to balance blood sugar
    • Ginger is an incredible anti-inflammatory
    • Anise is a powerful anti-viral 

I love the idea of sprucing up your coffee to "pump up the nutrition". Has anyone else tried anything they like?

Thanks Leah for sending in your questions. I hope my answers were helpful! 

If you have an herbal or health-related question of your own for Emily, get in touch and she'll get to writing. Happy Friday!