Silybum marianum, colloquially identified as carduus marianus, known as milk thistle is an annual or biannual plant with purple-pink flowers and pale green leaves with bright white veins.
Over the years there has been some confusion about the terminology of this plant. It was first known as carduus marianus. Today, most herbalists prefer to use the modern botanical name silybum marianum. The plant should not be confused with the holy thistle, which has the botanical name carduus benedictus.
Originally a native of Europe to Asia, but was widely introduced in England, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Cultivation fields in the production of raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry, exist in a larger scale in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, China and Argentina.
Marian thistle has been used medicinally since the 4th century before Christ. Its use in the treatment of hepatobiliary diseases dates from the 18th century, and its use as a hepatoprotectant is mentioned in historical references from ancient Greece.
Only recently has the active ingredient of the Marian thistle been isolated and given the name of silymarin. Phytotherapeutic researchers were the first to describe this component, identifying it as an anti-hepatotoxic principle. Since then the published literature on this plant confirms that, clinically, its most important use is for liver protection.
In its normal activity, the liver is confronted with a good amount of toxins every day. Some of these toxins can cause liver damage. Silymarin is now known to prevent or strengthen the area before damage occurs; possibly by stabilizing the cell membrane of the liver so that toxins are unable to reach it. Some research also indicates that silymarin is capable of reversing damage already occurred to hematocytes.
Plant extract is also being used in beverages as an energy agent.
The potent extract of the plant is used in medicine under the name of silymarin.
Several other medicinal uses are attributed to Marian thistle, but it is noteworthy that healing plants have restrictions on their use and against indications should be properly analyzed by the health professional.