Making tea out of herbs and plants such as milk thistle is a time-honored tradition, both for pleasure and medicinal purposes. Milk thistle tea is commonly associated with its benefits to the liver, but it also has other uses -- both traditionally and in modern times. Drinking milk thistle tea is generally regarded as safe, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, but consult a doctor before taking it, if you are allergic to any plant, are taking any medications or have a history of cancer.
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About the Milk Thistle Plant
The milk thistle plant, Silybum marianum, originated in the Mediterranean region, but is now cultivated throughout the world in hospitable climates. Its name derives from the milky substance that flows from the leaves when they are crushed. The active ingredient in milk thistle is called sylmarin, which is actually a combination of three flavonoids -- silibinin, silidianin, and silicristin -- that are powerful antioxidants. Sylmarin is believed to be responsible for protecting and repairing liver cells, as well as reducing inflammation in the liver.
Traditional uses for milk thistle tea include liver disorders such as cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis, as well as gallbladder disorders, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Other ailments traditionally treated include high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, mushroom poisoning, cirrhosis, and some types of cancer. Milk thistle is also used to protect the kidneys, treat inflammatory bowel disorders, psoriasis and a weakened immune system, according to Phyllis Balch, author of "Prescription for Nutritional Healing."
Modern Research on Milk Thistle
Most researched performed on milk thistle has had mixed results, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center -- particularly, research focused on the liver. The main disadvantage is that many of the studies have been too small or were not properly designed to be useful. Studies on animals have found potential benefits for mushroom poisoning and cancer prevention because of the action of one or more of the flavanoids, but research is limited. According to MedlinePlus, a milk thistle extract is possibly effective for seasonal allergies, as well as heartburn when combined with other herbs. The majority of the remaining claims for milk thistle require more research before any conclusion can be reached.
Milk thistle is not soluble in water, according to master herbalist Louise Tenney, author of "Milk Thistle," so it is best to make a tea out of an alcohol-based liquid extract, rather than using a fresh plant. Typically, liquid extracts are made of 70 to 80 percent silymarin, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Tinctures and dried-herb capsules can also be mixed with hot water to make a tea.
Milk thistle tea is generally regarded as safe, and side effects -- typically mild stomach upset and diarrhea -- are generally not severe. Do not drink milk thistle tea if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Consult your health care provider before taking any form of milk thistle, if you have a history of cancer, are taking any medications or have any type of plant-based allergies.