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Alcohol and Silybum Marianum

Have you ever suffered from veisalgia? A great many people have; and a greater percentage of Scots have suffered from this affliction than have the English, the Welsh or the Irish. And here in Scotland, Veisalgia is more common at this time of the year than at any other. Veisalgia has quite a variety of symptoms and, while a sufferer is unlikely to experience all of them at the same time, it is usual for several symptoms to manifest themselves simultaneously. The most common of all is headache, with a heightened sensitivity to light and to noise also very common; then a general feeling of nausea, accompanied by a lack of appetite and a sense of being unwell are reported by many sufferers. Thirst and a furry feeling in the mouth are not uncommon, while some people complain of having difficulty in concentrating or sleeping and many find they have trouble with their balance. Have you recognised what veisalgia is? Yes, that’s right, veisalgia is the scientific name for a hangover.

The reasons for excessive consumption of alcohol giving rise to a range of unpleasant after-effects are quite complex: but, at its simplest, the chemical ethanol … the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages …causes diuresis, which is the medical term for an increased need to go to the toilet; and this brings about dehydration, which causes headaches, dry mouth and lethargy. Alcohol also causes a complicated reaction in one’s liver, reducing the liver’s ability to maintain the correct levels of glucose in the blood, which reduces the brain’s supply of energy and impairs its ability to function properly. Thus we develop veisalgia and become very sorry for ourselves.

There’s nothing new about hangovers. As far back as we can go in recorded history, mankind has enjoyed drinking fermented beverages and has suffered after imbibing to excess. So, as you might expect, our ancestors turned to the natural world … the provider of the alcohol that caused their illness … for a hangover remedy; and for more than two millennia, we know that herbalists have recommended Silybum marianum for liver complaints. Now, since alcohol disturbs the proper function of the liver, it was … and is … logical to assume that a plant extract that helps to treat liver ailments will be beneficial in relieving the effects of a hangover. So what is Silybum marianum; and does it really help a hangover?

Silybum marianum is a fine, tall plant, commonly found in the more southerly parts of the United Kingdom in hedgebanks and on waste ground, especially close to old buildings, the reason for this being that it is not native to our islands but was brought here from the Mediterranean, probably for its real or supposed medicinal benefits. Its common name is the Milk thistle, and it can be used as a salad vegetable, the young leaves being regarded as particularly nutritious. The leaves can also be boiled and are said to taste rather better than cabbage; and the stems are edible, either cooked or raw. In the animal kingdom, pigs regard the foliage as a great treat and goldfinches will sell their souls for the seed. Milk thistle, being uncommon in Scotland, has little part in Scots ancestral folklore: but our southern and western neighbours have, in the past, used the plant in the treatment of jaundice, catarrh, pleurisy, cancer, snake-bite, dropsy and the plague … so it was thought to offer a huge range of medicinal benefits. The active ingredient in Milk thistle is a chemical called silymarin, which acts on the liver to slow the rate at which it absorbs harmful substances. This suggests that any herbal treatments based on the Milk thistle might be better taken before, rather than after, drinking too much alcohol … but, as ever, I am not endorsing its use; instead, I advocate drinking in moderation and bid you a prosperous … and veisalgia-free … 2012. Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society