Milk Thistle: Food for the Liver

By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator

This year I grew glorious Milk Thistle for the first time in my garden. With its sharp, prickly leaves it is not usually the first choice for gardeners, but for an herbalist, it is an exciting plant to grow. All summer long I observed as it spread out its milky-splotched leaves and unfurled its purple-flowers.

And now I have been rewarded with a harvest of fresh milk thistle seeds — the most prized and potent part of the plant. (Well, my favorite part, at least!)

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is not widely known outside of the herbal world. And that’s a shame, because it is an incredibly healthful herb that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily routine. My favorite way to use milk thistle seeds is simply to grind them up and sprinkle them on anything and everything I’m eating. I keep a small jar of the freshly ground seeds on my kitchen table so that I remember to add them to my meals — they are equally great on breakfast eggs, lunchtime salads, or savory dishes at dinner.

So, why would you want to eat these unusual seeds?

Well, quite simply, milk thistle is one of our best plants for supporting overall liver health. The seeds impart a protective effect on the liver, and help to prevent the absorption of substances that are damaging. In a world filled with environmental toxins, chemicals, alcohol and drugs, milk thistle is very beneficial indeed.

It is a very practical herb to have on hand for any indulgent occasion… Too much rich food? Too much alcohol? Milk Thistle! Just eat some seeds (ideally before and) after to help keep your liver moving along happily.

With an affinity for the liver, milk thistle really is like a food, helping to build and rejuvenate this vital organ. By increasing protein synthesis, milk thistle’s effects also lead to the growth of healthy new liver cells. Herbalists of past and present have used the seeds for cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, alcohol damage, and for an overall congested or sluggish liver.

I hold a special place in my heart for this dear plant and its supportive effects. I have a family member with hepatitis who has taken milk thistle seeds regularly for the past several years. I am grateful to report that her liver is going strong, her blood tests are normal, and she is healthy and happy!

Milk thistle also contains wonderful anti-inflammatory properties; as such it is often used in inflamed skin conditions that correspond to liver stagnation. Furthermore, the seeds can improve the break-down and removal of fats from the system by stimulating bile production; this action also helps address constipation and keeps the body regular.

As a supportive ally for both the liver and the digestive system, milk thistle is truly a valuable addition to any home apothecary.


Unlike most herbs, milk thistle seeds do not very extract well in water so don’t try to make a cup of tea out of them! Instead eat the fresh ground seeds, or get a good quality capsule. If using the seeds buy them whole and then grind them as needed (I use a coffee grinder to make them into a coarse powder). The seeds taste oily, sweet and bitter all at once — perhaps they are an acquired taste, but they are not unpleasant at all. Start with taking 1/2 to 1 tablespoon per day sprinkled on your food and see how it feels to you, adjusting the amount as you need.

If you like, you can also try mixing the ground seeds into honey, and take a spoonful of this mixture at a time.

Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference.  Learn more about her work at: and

Wood, Matthew: The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine

This blog post — Milk Thistle: Food for the Liver  — is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.