The food plant Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn.: Phytochemistry, Ethnopharmacology and clinical evidence

J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Jan 30:265:113303. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2020.113303. Epub 2020 Sep 1.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Silybum marianum (L.) Gaertn. or Milk thistle is a medicinal plant native to Northern Africa, Southern Europe, Southern Russia and Anatolia. It also grows in South Australia, North and South America. In traditional knowledge, people have used S. marianum for liver disorders such as hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and gallbladder diseases. The main active compound of the plant seeds is silymarin, which is the most commonly used herbal supplement in the United States for liver problems. Nowadays, S. marianum products are available as capsules, powders, and extracts.

Aim of study: The aim of our study is to draw a more comprehensive overview of the traditional heritage, pharmacological benefits and chemical fingerprint of S. marianum extracts and metabolites; as well as their metabolism and bioavailability.

Materials and methods: An extensive literature search has been conducted using relavant keywords and papers with rationale methodology and robust data were selected and discussed. Studies involving S. marianum or its main active ingredients with regards to hepatoprotective, antidiabetic, cardiovascular protection, anticancer and antimicrobial activities as well as the clinical trials performed on the plant, were discussed here.

Results: S. marianum was subjected to thousands of ethnopharmacological, experimental and clinical investigations. Although, the plant is available for use as a dietary supplement, the FDA did not yet approve its use for cancer therapy. Nowadays, clinical investigations are in progress where a global evidence of its real efficiency is needed.

Conclusion: S. marianum is a worldwide used herb with unlimited number of investigations focusing on its benefits and properties, however, little is known about its clinical efficiency. Moreover, few studies have discussed its metabolism, pharmacokinetics and bioavailability, so that all future studies on S. marianum should focus on such areas.

Keywords: Clinical; Ethnopharmacology; Milk thistle; S. marianum; Silymarin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Ethnopharmacology
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Traditional
  • Milk Thistle / chemistry*
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology*
  • Seeds
  • Silymarin / isolation & purification
  • Silymarin / pharmacology*


  • Plant Extracts
  • Silymarin