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Milk thistle seeds

Chinese: 水飞蓟

Pinyin: Shuǐ Fēi Jì

Parts used: Dried ripe seeds

TCM category: Herbs that clear Heat and relieve Toxicity

TCM nature: Cool

TCM taste(s): Bitter

Organ affinity: Gallbladder Liver

Scientific name: Silybum marianum

Other names: Holy thistle, Blessed thistle, Marian thistle, Mary thistle, Saint Mary's thistle, Variegated thistle or Scotch thistle

Use of milk thistle seeds (Shui Fei Ji) in TCM

Please note that you should never self-prescribe TCM ingredients. A TCM ingredient is almost never eaten on its own but as part of a formula containing several ingredients that act together. Please consult a professional TCM practitioner, they will be best able to guide you.

Preparation: Remove impurities and dry.

Dosage: 3.5 to 14 grams

Main actions according to TCM*: Clears Heat and dispels toxicity. Regulates the flow of Qi in the Liver and tonify Gallbladder.

Primary conditions or symptoms for which milk thistle seeds may be prescribed by TCM doctors*: Hepatitis Jaundice Cirrhosis Abdominal pain Cholangitis Gallstones

Key TCM concepts behind milk thistle seeds (Shui Fei Ji)'s properties

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), milk thistle seeds are plants that belong to the 'Herbs that clear Heat and relieve Toxicity' category. Herbs in this category are used to clear inflammatory and infectious conditions, referred to as 'Internal Heat' in TCM. This is why most of the herbs in this category will have both antibacterial and antiviral properties. In TCM one has too much 'Internal Heat' in their body as a result of a deficiency of 'Yin' (which is Cold in nature, see our explanation on Yin and Yang) or, more commonly, an Excess of Yang (Hot in nature). Herbs that clear Heat and relieve Toxicity treat the latter while, at the same time, removing infectious toxins from the body. As such they tend to be Cold or Neutral in nature.

As suggested by its category milk thistle seeds are plants that are Cool in nature. This means that milk thistle seeds tend to help people who have too much 'Heat' in their body, although with less effect than a plant that would be Cold in nature. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much Heat in their body are said to either have a Yang Excess (because Yang is Hot in nature) or a Yin deficiency (Yin is Cold in Nature). Depending on your condition milk thistle seeds can help restore a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang.

Milk thistle seeds also taste Bitter. The so-called 'Five Phases' theory in Chinese Medicine states that the taste of TCM ingredients is a key determinant of their action in the body. Bitter ingredients like milk thistle seeds tend to have a cleansing action on the body by clearing Heat, drying Dampness and promoting elimination via urination or bowel movements.

The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what Organs and Meridians they target. As such milk thistle seeds are thought to target the Gallbladder and the Liver. Similar to modern medicine, in TCM the Gallbladder stores and releases bile produced by the Liver. It also controls the emotion of decisiveness. The Liver on the other hand is often referred as the body's "general" because it is in charge of regulating the movements of Qi and the Body Fluids. It also takes a leading role in balancing our emotions.

Research on milk thistle seeds (Shui Fei Ji)

Silymarin, derived from the milk thistle plant, and its active constituent, silybin, have been reported to work as antioxidants scavenging free radicals and inhibiting lipid peroxidation. Studies also suggest that they protect against genomic injury, increase hepatocyte protein synthesis, decrease the activity of tumor promoters, stabilize mast cells, chelate iron, and slow calcium metabolism.1

Silymarin (derived from milk thistle) treatment in type II diabetic patients for 4 months has a beneficial effect on improving the glycemic profile.2


1. Flora K, Hahn M, Rosen H, Benner K (1998). Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) for the Therapy of Liver Disease. The American College of Gastroenterology. 93:139. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.1998.00139.x

2. Huseini, H. F., Larijani, B. , Heshmat, R. , Fakhrzadeh, H. , Radjabipour, B. , Toliat, T. and Raza, M. (2006), The efficacy of Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. (silymarin) in the treatment of type II diabetes: a randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled, clinical trial. Phytother. Res., 20: 1036-1039. doi:10.1002/ptr.1988