Burdock, or Arctium lappa, is a plant that’s commonly found in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. In North America, it’s considered a pesky weed by many, although American Indian tribes have used it medicinally for many centuries. All parts of the burdock plant have nutritional and medicinal value, although the roots are most commonly sold as herbal supplements.
The burdock plant is prickly and considered to be a type of thistle, but its leaves, roots and seeds are fairly nutritious, so some cultures eat them on a regular basis. In general, the burdock plant is a good source of iron, potassium, calcium, B-vitamins, amino acids and dietary fiber. The main medicinal compounds in burdock root are called polyacetylenes, which are antimicrobials that deter the growth of some bacteria, fungi and parasites, at least in the laboratory, although more testing is needed on people before any medical claims can be made. Burdock root and leaves are also rich in compounds that act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and diuretics, such as flavonoids, tannins, essential oils, inulin, chlorogenic acid, arcigen, lactone and taraxosterol.
Burdock root and seeds traditionally have been used to purify the blood of toxins and soothe inflammatory conditions related to the kidneys, liver and gallbladder. The antimicrobials and antioxidants in burdock help to neutralize some pathogens and poisons, and its diuretic properties help to increase urination and flush them out of the body. The diuretic effects of burdock are also helpful for removing excess fluid and reducing edema. Some minor side effects of detoxification are nausea, headache and increased perspiration. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that although burdock has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, very few scientific studies have examined its effects.
Burdock tea and tinctures are sometimes consumed to promote better digestion because they stimulate the liver and gallbladder to release more bile, which is needed to digest and metabolize fat. Burdock may also help to alleviate stomach inflammation, infection and upset due to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. The mucilage content of burdock helps to coat and soothe the mucus membranes of the digestive tract.
Skin and Scalp Conditions
Burdock ointments, tinctures and tea may be applied to your skin to help combat conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, acne and mild infections, although you should consult with a dermatologist before using any herbal preparations. Burdock root or seed oil is sometimes used to treat dandruff and split-ends by massaging it into the scalp before bathing. Some herbal shampoos contain oils and extracts from burdock.
Essiac is an herbal tea developed by Canadian nurse Rene Caisse in the 1920s, although she claimed to get the recipe from a Native American healer. Caisse recommended it to patients to help combat infectious diseases and cancer. The herbal tea is still popular among alternative health practitioners, although medical research does not support the widespread health claims. The original formula called for 6.5 cups of dried burdock root combined with 16 ounces of dried sheep sorrel, 4 ounces of slippery elm bark and 1 ounce of dried turkey rhubarb root. The concoction is brought to a slow boil and then simmered for a few hours before filtering and drinking.
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Burdock
- Herbs that Heal: Prescription for Herbal Healing; Michael and Janet Weiner
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.