Milk thistle – the drinker’s dietary supplement

Milk thistle plant

5 May 2022 A rerun for this ever-popular article.

25 April 2019 Here is the first time we republish an article twice! Such is the interest expressed in this potion that I mentioned recently in Bibulous dinners described.

6 March 2014 This is the second of our Throwback Thursday articles, inspired by our archives or a desire to share a members-only article with a wider readership. This particular article was first published on 28 August 2008 and has been added to since, but I urge you to click on the links and on the milk thistle tag at the top of this article to read more on this popular subject. I certainly don't want to encourage over-indulgence, but I have found milk thistle effective (perhaps psychosomatically?) in minimising the less welcome effects of alcohol.

9 September 2012 See below for an addition from Swiss botanist and co-author of Wine Grapes, Dr José Vouillamoz.

Those of you who have followed this website from its tentative first steps in late 2000 and have memorised every word (can such a person exist?) may well be aware of milk thistle already. This natural health product reputed to protect the liver against toxins such as alcohol has been part of my life for years now. Based on silymarin, or Silybum marianum, it is now obviously so popular than the leading British chemist Boots offer their own brand of milk thistle in an easy, flat blister pack. I do wish I had bought shares in a milk thistle farm. 

I don't take it as a matter of course, but I do take one or two when I know I have a seriously heavy tasting, or drinking, session ahead. If by any chance I forget to take it, I really do think I can tell the difference. I took it assiduously when in Alsace recently when I had to tackle nearly 90 full-bodied whites during one day, followed by more than 30 wines chez Trimbach and felt absolutely fine both that evening and, more importantly, the following morning.

I see that my first article about it, Milk thistle – the drinker's friend, was published way back in December 2001. It was based on how I felt just after our 10-years-on dinner of 1989 Bordeaux first growths at which our host Edmund Penning-Rowsell used to insist that the six of us, including Michael Broadbent, finish as much as possible of the seven or eight bottles opened.

You may not be surprised to know that this article generated considerable interest – not least among my fellow wine professionals. If you search on 'milk thistle' in our Members' forum, you can also read various threads in which many a Purple Pager asked for details of this miracle product, or swore their allegiance to it.

Update 24 November 2008 Grape expert José Vouillamoz reports that the French name for milk thistle is Chardon-Marie. José recently attended a conference by a world expert on pharmacognosy, Prof Hostettmann from the University of Geneva, who said that milk thistle was the best liver-protecting (or liver-booster) plant available – and Hostettmann said he takes it himself before serious dinners. However, José also added that some recent clinical studies have been inconclusive with regard to its effectiveness in protecting against liver diseases.

Update 9 September 2012 Dr Vouillamoz adds further, 'Funnily enough, I have just read a paper on this topic and I was thinking of you. There are some contradictory studies, but in a few words, the effect of milk thistle (silymarin) in the treatment of liver diseases (cirrhosis, poisoning, etc) has been established, while there is no strict evidence for it protecting healthy livers from developing alcohol-related diseases, or for it reducing the negative effects of alcohol consumption. In other words, it is used as a therapeutic drug, not as a prophylactic drug. The antidote still doesn't exist.