Blessed Thistle

blessed thistle

What is Blessed Thistle?

Blessed thistle is an annual flowering plant that originated in the Mediterranean region and is now found in other parts of the world, including Europe, Asia, South Africa, Central and South America, and it is scattered across the U.S. and Canada.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, blessed thistle is a member of the Asteraceae family, commonly referred to as the aster, daisy, sunflower, or ragweed family.(1) The plant has a thin red spiny stem covered by fuzzy down; spiked, fine-haired leaves; and yellow or purple flowers. It grows on dry, stony ground and in open, sunny areas. Its leaves, stems, and flowering tops are typically harvested in the summer for various natural herbal formulations.(2)

Potential health benefits of blessed thistle include supporting digestion, urinary tract health, skin health, seasonal health challenges, and breast milk production in nursing mothers.(3)

Blessed Thistle vs. Milk Thistle

Blessed thistle (Cnicus Benedictus) should not be confused with its relative, milk thistle (Silybum marianum). Blessed thistle contains tannins, which are water-soluble polyphenols that help protect the body against oxidation and support healthy digestion; whereas, milk thistle contains silymarin, a popular ingredient in herbal supplements used to support liver health.(4,5)

Potential Uses for Blessed Thistle

Blessed thistle was traditionally used in bitter tonics to stimulate appetite and digestion, among other potential uses. Common preparations of blessed thistle include as a tea, in dietary supplements (usually in capsule form), in herbal tinctures, extracts, or flavorings for alcoholic beverages, such as Benedictine liqueur.

Adult Dosage* (Age 18+)

  • Oral tincture: 7.5-10 ml (1.5 g/L blessed thistle) three times daily has been used
  • Liquid extract (l:lg/ml in 25% alcohol): 1.5-3.0 ml three times daily has been used
  • Infusion: 1.5-2 g of blessed thistle in 150 ml water three times daily has been used
  • Tea: 1.5-3 g of dried blessed thistle flowering tops steeped in boiling water and taken as tea three times daily, or 1-3 tsp of dried blessed thistle herb in 1 cup boiling water for 5-15 min; 1 cup may be taken three times daily, recommended by some to be used 30 min before meals. May be bitter in taste.(6)

* According to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration

Safety Precautions**

  • Gastric irritation and vomiting have been reported from high doses of blessed thistle (>5 g per cup of tea).
  • May cause allergic cross-sensitivity with other members of the Asteraceae family. Do not take if you are allergic to ragweed.
  • Not safe for use during pregnancy.
  • Not recommended in infancy or early childhood.

** According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine(7)

There is no widely accepted standardization for blessed thistle. Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking an herbal supplement.

blessed thistle infographic

Brief History of Blessed Thistle

Blessed thistle (Cnicus Benedictus), also known as holy thistle, St. Benedict’s thistle, or spotted thistle, received its Latin name from the Benedictine monks who cultivated the plant in Medieval Europe in hopes of treating symptoms such as boils caused by the Black Death (Plague). The first part of its Latin name, “Cnicus,” from “knizein,” meaning “to torment,” refers to the plant’s prickly leaves. “Benedictus" means blessed.(8)

Blessed thistle has been used for more than 2,000 years to stimulate appetite, support bile secretion, support liver health, support circulation, promote hormone balance, and more. Historically, herbalists used blessed thistle as a general stimulant and as a tonic to support the digestive tract. Bitter herbs such as blessed thistle help stimulate organs into a reflex action, especially in the liver and female reproductive organs. It also has an expectorant effect on the upper respiratory system, which may temporarily ease symptoms related to seasonal health challenges.

Preparations of blessed thistle have been used historically as a general tonic/cure-all, according to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. The flowering tops, leaves, and upper stems of blessed thistle have been used in various herbal remedies since the Middle Ages, as well as in Indian Ayurvedic medicine and traditional folk medicine.

A prickly purple thistle was adopted as the Emblem of Scotland during the reign of Alexander III (1249 -1286). When Norway tried to conquer the Scots at night under the cover of darkness, one of the enemy soldiers stepped on a spiny thistle and shrieked out in pain, alerting the Scottish Clansmen of the advancing Norsemen. The Scots won the day. The thistle is now Scotland's national emblem. It later appeared on silver coins issued by James III in 1470.(9)

According to Southern Cross Plant Science, a department of Southern Cross University, holy thistle (another moniker for blessed thistle) is mentioned in all treatises on the Plague, especially in “Poore Man’s Jewell” (Treatise of the Pestilence), published by Thomas Brasbridge in 1578.(10)

In the fourteenth century, the Plague (also called the Black Death or the Black Plague) became widespread across Asia and throughout Europe. There were actually three strains of the plague, including the bubonic (the most common), the septicemic plague (affecting the circulatory system), and the pneumonic plague (affecting the respiratory system). The disease spread at an alarming rate due to filthy and overcrowded living conditions and a lack of a sewer system. It was spread by rats hosting parasitic fleas infested by the dangerous bacteria. Painful black boils would appear on the groin, thighs, arms, or on the neck, accompanied by a high fever, fatigue, hysteria, vomiting of blood, and then death within one week or less for humans.(11)

Monks and herbalists used blessed thistle for its alleged antiseptic properties. Brasbridge wrote that the distilled leaves “helpeth the hart...expelleth all poison taken in at the mouth and other corruption that doth hurt and annoy the heart...the juice of it is outwardly applied to the body...therefore I counsel all that have Gardens to nourish it, that they may have it always to their own use, and the use of their neighbours that lack it.”

Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine and traditional folk medicine have used blessed thistle for digestive comfort and applied it to the skin to support wound healing. Today, it is also used to support digestive comfort, a healthy immune system response, skin health, natural breast milk stimulation, and detoxification through the elimination of urine and bile.(12)

Potential Health Benefits of Blessed Thistle

Promotes Digestive System

Blessed thistle contains bitter glycosides that stimulate the gustatory nerves, which are located in the mouth and affect the sense of taste, ultimately promoting appetite and gastric juice secretion in the stomach.(13) It is believed that drinking blessed thistle in a tea or tonic may aid digestion and stimulate saliva.(14)

In addition, blessed thistle has natural diuretic qualities, helping support cleansing and detoxification of the body. Detoxification involves eliminating excess waste such as urine and bile, which supports the health of the liver, kidneys, and colon.(15)

Supports Immune System

People experience seasonal allergies due to an overactive immune system, which triggers histamine reactions. Essentially, your body tries to fight off what it identifies as invading substances. Herbal supplements may help calm these reactions.(16)

Active ingredients in blessed thistle include bitter substances known as sesquiterpene lactones, which keep plants in their natural environment healthy by providing defense against mild microbial attack. Consumption of such active ingredients in herbs like blessed thistle could have a similar effect on humans.(17)

In vitro studies suggest a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity of blessed thistle. However, not enough is known about the safety or efficacy of the plant, according to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration.

Supports Skin Health

Blessed thistle has been used externally to help treat wounds, ulcers, and injured skin. A soft cloth soaked in a poultice of blessed thistle and heated may be applied to the skin for this purpose.(18)

Promotes Milk Production for Breastfeeding

Blessed thistle is often used as a “galactagogue” in conjunction with fenugreek, a common Middle Eastern spice, to support breast milk supply.(19) The word galactagogue comes from the Greek word “galacta,” meaning milk. A galactagogue is any food, herb or drug that promotes breast milk production. A healthy breast milk supply is important in facilitating breastfeeding, but some mothers may need help producing enough milk to feed a hungry infant. To promote breast milk supply, a mother should also lower her exposure to stress, and reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption.(20)

According to the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the cells, hormones, and antibodies in breast milk may help to protect babies from illness.(21) The National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says that breast milk gives infants a “better survival during a baby’s first year, including a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Research also shows that very early skin-to-skin contact and suckling may have physical and emotional benefits. Other studies suggest that breastfeeding may reduce the risk for certain allergic diseases, asthma, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.”(22)

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding as the normal way of providing infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Colostrum is a sticky, yellow form of milk produced by the breasts of mammals (including humans) at the end of pregnancy and during the nursing stage. The WHO considers breast milk the best nutritional food for infants up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding, recommended, along with age-appropriate foods, for up to two years of age.(23) The American Academy of Pediatrics also confirms the importance of breastfeeding to support a baby’s developmental health.(24)

Participants in a clinical study who used a combination herbal supplement of fenugreek and blessed thistle during breastfeeding reported breast engorgement and infants’ perceived satisfaction and fullness during feeding. However, more research is needed.(25)

Warning: Herbs such as blessed thistle or fenugreek that are used to stimulate lactation are also uterine stimulants, which may cause a miscarriage, so they should not be used during pregnancy. Other common herbs used as galactagogues are stinging nettle, goat’s rue, fennel, Shatavari, or alfalfa, but caution should always be used. Herbal galactagogues may interfere with other medications or cause reactions, so it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider before use.

How To Buy Blessed Thistle

Are you a nursing mother? Don’t feed your baby commercial baby formulas that may have GMOs! Instead, try herbal galactagogues such as those made with blessed thistle as a natural way of promoting the production of a mother’s breast milk supply. Or, if you need digestive support, help healing minor skin abrasions, temporarily relief of symptoms related to seasonal health challenges, or need an appetite stimulant, try blessed thistle in supplement or herb form as a tea or poultice.

Shop Natural Healthy Concepts for high-quality blessed thistle supplements from plants that have been certified organically grown, available as vegetable capsules, liquid extracts, and teas. It may make a difference to your health! Find more lactation support products here.(26)

Sources

  1. https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=Cnbe
  2. http://scu.edu.au/scps/index.php/117/
  3. http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-2046001
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9759559
  5. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/milkthistle/ataglance.htm
  6. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Wendy_Weissner/publication/247896516_An_Evidence-Based_Systematic_Review_of_Blessed_Thistle_Cnicus_benedictus_by_the_Natural_Standard_Research_Collaboration/links/00b7d533252fcb0128000000/An-Evidence-Based-Systematic-Review-of-Blessed-Thistle- Cnicus-benedictus-by-the-Natural-Standard-Research-Collaboration.pdf
  7. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/94.html
  8. https://wellnessmama.com/375/blessed-thistle
  9. http://www.scotshistoryonline.co.uk/thistle/thistle.html
  10. https://www.localharvest.org/blog/30404/entry/thistles_for_plate_and_medicine
  11. http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/plague.htm
  12. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-94-blessed%20thistle.aspx?activeingredientid=94&
  13. http://www.epharmacognosy.com/2012/04/2_12.html
  14. https://www.motherlove.com/blog/view/get-to-know-blessed-thistle
  15. http://community.omtimes.com/profiles/blogs/blessed-thistle-many-benefits-and-used-for-centuries
  16. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-4706/Herbs-to-Embrace-Avoid-During-Allergy-Season.html
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3709812/
  18. http://www.chinese-herbs.org/blessed-thistle/
  19. http://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cnicus+benedictus
  20. http://breastfeeding.support/what-is-a-galactagogue/
  21. https://www.womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding/making-decision-breastfeed
  22. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/breastfeeding/conditioninfo/Pages/benefits.aspx
  23. http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/
  24. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/02/22/peds.2011-3552
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4586661/
  26. https://www.naturalhealthyconcepts.com/lactation-support.html