Silybum: Milk thistle in Eclectic medical practice

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 04-30-94 6(1): 5

Herbalism is not immune from the world view of reductionist science and allopathic medicine. Too often we think of “Herb A” for “Condition B,” and an herb gets pigeonholed. Thus we now think of milk thistle as a “liver herb,” and it’s well that we should. But we shouldn’t limit our thinking to using it only for overt liver disease, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis. As we related at length in our last issue, many diseases may be related to liver dysfunction. Furthermore, because milk thistle is proven to be a “liver herb” doesn’t mean that it’s only a liver herb. A description follows of the clinical use of milk thistle seed (tincture) by Finley Ellingwood, MD, who introduced the herb into Eclectic medical practice in the late nineteenth century. It includes liver, spleen, and pelvic indications. The Eclectics were known as careful clinical observers who shied away from extravagant claims.

Carduus marianus (Silybum marianum)

“Harvey, in the California Medical Journal, says the indications are so plain that a beginner can prescribe it with certainty. It is indicated where there is venous stasis, the true veins enlarged and dogged with blood. This is true of either the large or small veins. He says he cured one case where the veins from the hips to the toes were as large and as hard as twisted Manila rope. They could be felt through the clothing. He cured completely a varicose tumor in the popliteal space [ed: behind the knee]. It was about four inches long, and three inches wide. The skin of the neck and hands was discolored. There was a troublesome chronic cough with the expectoration of large quantities of offensive matter. He believed these symptoms to be associated with disease of the spleen. He has observed these colored spots in other cases, and sometimes found long continued soreness and tenderness of the joints of the feet. Carduus, in five-drop doses three or four times a day [ed. note: strength not indicated], cured all the symptoms in this case, restoring the patient to perfect health. The remedy acts slowly and must be persisted in.”

Ellingwood names the following possible indications for milk thistle seed:.

- Dull aching pain over the spleen, which radiates up to the left shoulder blade, associated with debility and despondency, splenic pain with or without enlargement, when there is no evidence of malaria.

- Congestion of the liver, spleen, or kidneys.

- General bilious conditions accompanied with stitches in the right side, with hard and tender spots, gallstone, jaundice, hepatic pain and swelling.

- Vomiting of pregnancy, when liver and spleen are involved.

- For hemorrhages, when there is congestion of the liver or spleen.

- Periodic gall stones.

- Pelvic congestions.

- Caruncular growths in the female urethra.

- Blood in the urine, with sensation of weight and tension in the pelvis, when accompanied by varicosities in the rectal veins.

- Hemorrhoids and varicose veins.

This picture shows the loss of limiting the consideration of milk thistle seed to overt liver conditions. Notice also that, despite the claims of modern herb marketers that “only the concentrated solid extract” is effective, in the case above severe varicose veins were effectively treated with five-drop doses of a strong alcohol tincture three or four times a day.

Ellingwood F. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy. 1898. Reprinted by Eclectic Medical Publications. Portland Oregon.

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