What Is Butterbur And How Can It Improve My Health?

History reveals that butterbur was once a cure for the plague. Although the plague may no longer be a threat, butterbur is still around, treating other ailments like headaches or asthma. Get to know butterbur and what it can do for you.

So, what’s in a name?

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is a shrub that grows in Europe, parts of Asia and North America. It typically fosters in wet, marshy ground. Its name, linked to traditional use, was derived from its large leaves, used to wrap butter in warm weather.

In the Middle Ages, butterbur health benefits included curing fever and even the plague. Later it was used to treat a cough, asthma and skin wounds. Here in North America, Native Americans have traditionally used butterbur as an herbal remedy for headaches and inflammation as well. Today, it’s used for urinary tract symptoms, stomach upset, migraines, allergies and other conditions. 

What you need to know before taking butterbur

Butterbur health benefits are numerous, but there are some things you should know before taking it.

The raw, unprocessed butterbur plant contains chemicals — dangerous and sometimes deadly — called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). PAs are dangerous because they can cause liver damage, resulting in serious illness and even death. The FDA reports that the first sign of intoxication is gastrointestinal symptoms. These include abdominal pain with vomiting and the development of ascites. Death may follow two weeks or even two years after poisoning. But patients can recover almost completely if it is discontinued and the liver damage is not severe.

Only butterbur products that have been processed to remove PAs should ever be used. Additionally, look for products certified PA-free. Many studies report that PA-free butterbur products are safe, suggests the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. In fact, studies involving children and adolescents report PA-free butterbur products are well tolerated when taken by mouth. But it’s not recommended to take butterbur longer than 16 weeks. How safe it is for long-term use, has not yet been established. Butterbur should only be administered to children under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.

It’s not recommended to take butterbur longer than 16 weeks. How safe it is for long-term use has not yet been established. Butterbur should only be administered to children under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.

While usually well tolerated, butterbur can cause side effects. These side effects include belching, headache, itchy eyes, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, fatigue and drowsiness. Additionally, butterbur may cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to plants such as ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds and daisies.

Provides migraine relief

Butterbur for migraine

One of the main health benefits of butterbur is its potential in treating migraines. Migraines are recurring and throbbing headaches that typically affect one side of the head. They’re also often accompanied by nausea and disturbed vision. An extract of butterbur root, known as petasin, is thought to possess anti-inflammatory and vasoactive properties. This has led researchers to investigate its efficacy for migraine relief.

Researchers at Armstrong Atlantic State University set out to provide updated evidence-based recommendations for the preventive treatment of migraine headaches. Researchers investigated if complementary treatments were effective for migraine prevention. Over 200 published studies between a 10-year period were analyzed to classify the evidence relative to the efficacy of various medications for migraine prevention.

A portion of studies used nontraditional therapies, including complementary therapies such as butterbur. Researchers concluded that butterbur is effective for reducing the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. It is “effective and should be offered for migraine prevention.” In fact, the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society endorse butterbur extract to reduce migraine frequency.

Reduces inflammation

The main benefit of butterbur is its anti-inflammatory properties. These work by decreasing leukotrienes which mediate inflammation within the body. Inflammation, particularly chronic inflammation, wears down the body gradually.

Some of the more important butterbur health benefits include its response to arthritis, gout or even heart conditions. Thanks to an almost immediate reduction in inflammation, butterbur painlessly and quickly relieves inflammatory diseases. Butterbur may help reduce common symptoms of inflammation such as:

  • Visible signs of aging  
  • Vulnerability to infections
  • Acid reflux
  • Skin conditions such as psoriasis and acne
  • Arthritis and chronic pain
  • Bronchitis
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Osteoporosis
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Yeast infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Pain and muscle spasms
  • And even cancer

Cures the common cold

Butterbur for common cold

This is one of the butterbur health benefits sure to come in handy with the upcoming cold and flu season. Butterbur is an expectorant. Meaning, it can stimulate the expulsion of mucus and phlegm from the respiratory tracts and the nasal cavities. Mucus and phlegm are home for bacteria to cultivate. Eliminating mucus and phlegm can speed the healing process or even prevent you from worsening.

Alleviates allergic reactions

For some allergy suffers, allergic reactions can be severe. Reactions may include sneezing, dry itchy eyes and various other symptoms. These reactions are the result of histamines released in the body when you encounter certain allergens — even if harmless.

A Swiss study looked at patients suffering from allergic rhinitis. Participants received two tablets of standardized butterbur three times a day for one week. After five days of treatment, day and nighttime nasal symptoms significantly improved. In addition, researchers observed a significant reduction of histamine, and quality-of-life scores improved greatly.

Butterbur is an antihistamine, which means it can naturally prevent allergic reactions, or at least reduce the severity of reactions significantly. Study results suggest that butterbur is effective in treating allergic rhinitis patients by decreasing levels of nasal inflammation.

Subdues headaches

While a headache may not be as severe as a migraine it can sure leave you feeling drained. Petasin and isopetasin, two chemical compounds found in butterbur, are linked to reducing the severity and duration of a headache.

Reduces fevers

Traditionally, small amounts of butterbur were used to break fevers. This is due to the anti-inflammatory nature of the herb. It also has powerful immune boosting potential, lessening the severity of a fever.

Helps to relieve spasms and pain

Butterbur also has certain antispasmodic and pain-relieving properties. For instance, if you have tremors, irritable bowels, chronic pain, or are recovering from an illness or injury, small amounts of butterbur extract can help relieve those conditions rapidly.

Provides asthma relief

Butterbur for asthma

An open trial study from the University of Heidelberg in Germany looked at butterbur extract as a treatment for asthma. Sixty-four adults and 16 children/adolescents were treated for two months with the butterbur extract. For two months following, the intake of the extract was optional. During the study, asthma medication was permitted.

Interestingly, the number, duration and severity of asthma attacks decreased. Additionally, all the measured symptoms improved during therapy. In fact, more than 40 percent of patients using asthma medications reduced their intake by the end of the study. This study concluded that butterbur extract is an effective and safe therapy for the treatment of asthma.

How to take butterbur

Now that you’ve seen all of the butterbur health benefits, we hope you’re ready to incorporate it into your life.

Butterbur can be taken in several different forms, including consuming it or taking in a powder form. It is also available in pill form, tea or as a tincture. An effective dosage of Butterbur is 50 to 75 milligrams twice a day, according to Herb Wisdom.

However, as mentioned above, it is imperative to note that Butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These alkaloids are toxic chemicals that cause liver damage and even cancer. Once again, look for products that are certified pyrrolizidine alkaloid-free or PA-free.

Did we miss any butterbur health benefits? How else do you use it? Let us know!

— Katherine Marko

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