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!

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?

— 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:

  • 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! 

PCOS is NOT a life sentence


K, I've got a MAJOR problem with this article and I need to get it off my chest.

I was doing my Twitter rounds this morning before I got down to business when I spotted this tweet:



As an ex-PCOS patient and current PCOS crusader, naturally I clicked on it.

The headline is "Female Hormone Disorder Linked To Numerous Health Conditions" and then it begins, "Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS ) are at increased risk for a number of serious health problems, new research suggests...". Goes on to list every chronic metabolic, reproductive, and cardiovascular condition we all hope to never have and leaves it at that. For anyone who has recently been diagnosed with PCOS and is browsing the internet trying to find out what this means for them, this is NOT helpful information.

PCOS by it's nature IS a metabolic + reproductive issue. In any person diagnosed with some version of the condition you will find some degree of metabolic and/or reproductive dysregulation. Long term unmanaged blood sugar leads to inflammation, which leads to cardiovascular health concerns and that's how they get there. Not menstruating year after year increases a potential for endometrial cancer, and that's how's they got there.

But a DIAGNOSIS of PCOS? The diagnosis doesn't necessarily predispose you to these health concerns. But chronically high blood sugar, dysregulated hormones, and amenorrhea, may.

If you have just been diagnosed with PCOS, or have been living with it for years, and have found this blog post in your frantic search to learn more about what it means for you, welcome! And chin up. You are not going to get heart disease, diabetes, and endometrial cancer just BECAUSE you have this diagnosis. Think of being diagnosed with this condition as a gift. Yup, seriously. A gift. It's an opportunity to start listening to your body. Instead of getting a reality check 20 years from now once a chronic condition like diabetes or heart disease has taken hold, you are being given a chance to make some changes right now because you know for sure - something isn't working! Your doctor may say the cause is 'idiopathic' or unknown, but I will tell you that deeper investigation almost always reveals something near to a cause that can be modified. Stress management and dietary support go an incredibly long way to bring people with PCOS back to a place of balance and out of that terrifying territory where you're "at increased risk for a number of serious health problems".

PCOS is NOT a life sentence. It's possible to feel better. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns you might have. I love to talk PCOS and I'm totally here for you.

Teachers: Say No to Burnout This School Year!


This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to teachers this autumn. Teachers: my colleagues and I at Nourish Integrative Health wanted to reach out and give you some support during this crazy time of year. Stay tuned for posts on managing work stress, easy and delicious lunch ideas, & more. Receive all posts by using the 'Subscribe' form on the sidebar and check out the Happy & Healthy Teachers wellness program we are currently offering at Nourish.

There is no doubt about it, entertaining, supervising, educating, and supporting a group of thirty 3-18 year olds, five days a week for ten months of the year has to be one of the most challenging jobs out there. It's no surprise to us that many of our teaching friends find themselves crashing at the end of each work day. Although we can't help you with unruly classes or difficult principals, we can help you help yourself feel better able to cope with the challenges of your job. Here's a few suggestions of things you can put into practice to avoid burnout this school year: 

1. Get a good sleep

Starting with an obvious one but here's a few tips on how to make it happen:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene 
    • Sleep in a dark room
    • Do your best to block out distracting sounds by using a fan or white noise machine
    • Don't use your bed for any activities besides sleeping
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night
    • For teachers, this likely means getting to bed before 11:30pm. Why bother? Getting to bed earlier is not only going to lead to feeling more rested, but will help to support your metabolism, decrease depressive symptoms, and help balance the hormones that allow you to better cope with stress
  •  Have a snack before bed
    • If you find yourself waking up in the night, try having a small snack with some protein before bed. For some people, poor blood sugar regulation can lead to sleep disruption and a bedtime snack can be helpful. Try some almond butter on celery, hummus and rice crackers, or a bit more of whatever you had for dinner!

2. Make some of your free time screen-free time

It may not feel like it, but all that time you spend lying on your couch watching TV, browsing Facebook, or scanning Instagram on your phone, is actually much more stimulating than it is relaxing. Downtime spent reading, daydreaming, or just walking around outside is more rejuvenating and will do wonders to improve your sleep and mood  Schedule in some downtime into your schedule that is screen-free downtime - pick up a novel, put on some music, or go for a stroll - you'll feel better for it in the short term and the long term too. 

3. Move around

It's no accident that I'm telling you to move around instead of exercise. If the way you like to move around is something we generally consider 'exercise', than by all means, exercise! But if the word exercise makes your skin crawl, than forget I even mentioned it. What you really need to make a part of your regular life to avoid burnout is movement. Many teachers are lucky - you aren't necessarily sitting all day long, you at least get a bit of standing in the mix. Some of you may even be walking around at recess or crouching down by miniature desks. That being said, it's safe to say that nearly all of us in the working world are not doing nearly as much 'natural movement' (squatting, crouching, stepping, hopping, etc.) as we were engineered to do. I'm not asking you to hop to work, but I am suggesting that you make time for 'furniture free time' when you get home - sit or kneel on the floor to hang out with your kids, stand to have a drink with your honey - putting our bodies through a variety of positions throughout the day improves bloods and oxygen flow to all parts of our bodies including our brains, and will help to keep you feeling spry. 

 Don't forget to subscribe and check out our special program geared towards teachers! 



The Runners

I've had to take a blogging hiatus but I wanted to share this great short film with you. The Runners by Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley.