Thistles protect against liver damage

The milk thistle contains
substances that protect the liver.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

The milk thistle, Silybum marianum, is native to the Mediterranean and the Orient and has long been used in medicine. Dioscorides in Ancient Rome recommended the plant for use against various illnesses. The fruits have been used against stitch, as well as problems of the spleen and liver. Research has shown that the medically interesting substances in the fruits of the milk thistle are of a type known as flavonolignans.

Originally it was believed that there was one substance, silymarin. However modern research shows that silymarin consists of several closely related substances. Several of these can protect the liver. The fruits contain 1.5-3% silymarin.

According to the authorities within medicinal plant research, the flavonolignans from the milk thistle are the most studied natural products for protection against liver damage. Since 1969 more than 100 scientific articles have been written about their pharmacology and clinical use. One example from a two year clinical study showed that treatment with silymarin reduced deaths in patients with severe liver damage. Half of the patients were treated with silymarin three times a day and the other half were given placebos – sugar pills. After two years, the proportion of survivors in the placebo group was 53% and in the silymarin group 76%.

Silymarin is also used in the treatment of poisoning by destroying angel or death cap (Amanita phalloides and Amanita virosa) amanita mushrooms. It has also been claimed that silymarin has an effect on stomach ulcers and this has been confirmed in tests on sores produced in the mucous membrane of the stomach.

Bogbean – a bitter for the stomach

The leaves and rhizomes of
bogbean have been used in
medicine for stomach complaints.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata, is commonly found in Sweden in marshy areas. It has had a high incidence of use as a medicinal plant for many hundreds of years, principally because of its bitter taste. Even in our times the bogbean is used in traditional medicine to treat, among other things, inflammation of the kidneys. In Linnaeus’ book Materia medica (1749), he recommends it for inflammation of the kidneys, rheumatism as well as for stomach complaints. Linnaeus’ disciple and successor as professor of medicine in Uppsala, Carl Peter Thunberg, wrote a thesis about the use of bogbean which was published in 1797.

Many bitter tasting plants have been used for increasing the secretions in the stomach and thus improving the appetite which affects condition in general. Scientific studies have shown that bogbean contains several different bitter tasting substances which affect the stomach and intestinal system. Loganin is the bitter tasting substance which occurs in the greatest quantities in the plant. Apart from bogbean, absinth, yarrow and yellow gentian have also been used. Earlier, plants were graded for quality according to their bitterness. Stidies in systematic botany have shown that bogbean is closely related to yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea).

Pharmacological and chemical studies of the bogbean have been carried out at the Department of Medicinal at Uppsala University. A decoction of the plant has been shown to reduce inflammation and to have a protective effect against kidney damage. Here too, the bitter substances are at least partly responsible for the medicinal effects. However, more scientific studies are needed before it can be recommended to patients.

Bitterness - a measure of the quality of the medicinal plant

The root of the yellow gentian
tastes very bitter and has
consequently been used for centuries
within medicine as a stomach remedy.

Bitterness is a measure of how bitter a plant or substance is. It is determined by allowing subjects to test various dilutions of an extract. The value is given as the highest amount of water in millilitres in which 1 g of the plant, extract or substance still tastes bitter. The bitterness of the bogbean is around 1,500-9,000, i.e. 1 g. of leaf to between 1.5 and 9 litres water. The root of the yellow gentian has a bitterness of approx. 20,000. Substances isolated from the root of the yellow gentian have considerably higher values, e.g. amarogentin 58,000,000, which means 1 g of the substance to 58,000 litres of water. Absinth has a bitterness of 15,000.

Because of their effects in stimulating the appetite and aiding digestion, many bitter tasting plants have been used in medicine. Nowadays they are mostly found in the form of various alcohol extracts in aperitifs and drinks intended to be imbibed after food. In this context vermouth, martini, ouzo, raki and many, many others can be named.

Last modified: 2022-03-08