Health Benefits of Butterbur

Butterbur has a plant extract used in alternative remedies. But what are its health benefits and are there any risks involved in using it?

Butterbur comes from a shrub that grows in Europe, Asia, and parts of North America, and is available as a natural remedy in many health food stores and pharmacies. It is most commonly used to treat migraines and hay fever, although it has a number of other potential uses.

What is butterbur?

Butterbur plant and flower.
Butterbur extract comes from the bulb, leaf, and roots of the plant.

The proper name for the butterbur plant is petasites hybridus. It grows best in wet marshland, damp forest soil, or on riverbanks.

The name butterbur is thought to come from the fact that its large leaves were traditionally used to wrap butter and stop it from melting in summer.

Butterbur extract is taken from the leaf, roots, or bulb of the plant.

The use of butterbur to treat ailments can be traced back to the Middle Ages when it was used to fight the plague. Over the centuries it has been used to treat a range of conditions, including:

  • wounds
  • coughs
  • asthma

Today it is most commonly used to treat:

  • headaches and migraines
  • allergies, such as hay fever
  • upset stomachs
  • urinary tract infections

Uses of butterbur

This section explores the modern day uses of butterbur and the scientific evidence available to support them.

Migraines

Butterbur may be able to treat the symptoms of migraines and may make attacks less frequent.

The most popular use of butterbur is in the treatment of migraines and headaches. Scientific research shows that this use is well-founded.

2011 review found butterbur to be a safe and effective treatment for migraines, especially at high doses.

Researchers noted that the exact way butterbur works to relieve migraines is unknown. However, they believe it has to do with the anti-inflammatory effects of the active components.

A 2012 review conducted on behalf of the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society found that butterbur is effective for migraine prevention.

The review recommends that butterbur should be offered to people who experience migraines to reduce the frequency and severity of their attacks.

Hay fever

Butterbur is often used to treat allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever.

2007 review of existing studies found that there is encouraging evidence that suggests butterbur may help to treat seasonal allergic rhinitis.

However, the review called for further studies to be done to confirm the findings because three of the trials that found butterbur to improve allergic rhinitis symptoms were funded by a company that manufactured butterbur products.

Upset stomachs

Some people use butterbur to treat stomach upsets and find it to be effective. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this use.

2011 review noted that studies have found that butterbur may actually cause stomach problems. Researchers found that problems with digestion, such as belching, were a side-effect of taking butterbur.

More research is needed to support the claim that butterbur is an effective treatment for an upset stomach.

Urinary tract infections

As the active chemicals in butterbur help reduce spasms and inflammation, some people believe butterbur could help treat urinary tract infections.

However, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to support the claim that butterbur can combat urinary tract infections.

How butterbur works

Butterbur contains two chemicals called petasin and isopetasin. These chemicals help to reduce spasms and inflammation. It is the action of these chemicals that are thought to give butterbur its health benefits.

Butterbur is sold in a number of forms, including:

  • extracts
  • capsules
  • powders
  • tinctures
  • gels

There are several things to consider before deciding to take butterbur. As with any natural remedy, it is a good idea for an individual to speak to a doctor to check how butterbur may interact with any existing medications they may be taking.

Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate the quality or sale of butterbur, so a person should always buy natural remedies from a reputable source.

Check the label

Depending on how they are prepared, butterbur remedies may contain chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). These are known to damage the liver and can cause serious illness.

Teas and other raw or unprocessed butterbur products are likely to contain PAs and should be avoided.

It is only safe to take butterbur products that are certified as “PA-free,” as these products have been processed in a way that removes the dangerous chemicals.

Be aware of side effects

While most people tolerate butterbur well, some may experience side effects. Side effects can include:

  • headaches
  • itchy eyes
  • diarrhea
  • breathing difficulties
  • fatigue
  • drowsiness

Avoid if sensitive to plants

Butterbur may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive or allergic to other plants and plant products. In these cases, it should be avoided.

Avoid long-term use

While studies have looked at the short-term use of butterbur, there are no studies that look at long-term use of the plant. Consequently, it is not known if long-term butterbur use is safe.

It is best to take butterbur only to provide short-term relief.

Using “PA-free” natural remedies containing butterbur is safe for most people, but a person should still use caution and research the brand and potential side effects. Some people may experience mild side effects, especially if they have a sensitivity to plants.

Butterbur has been shown to be effective in treating migraines. The evidence of its use to treat hay fever is encouraging, but research is ongoing.

Based on current research, there is little evidence to support the use of butterbur to treat other ailments.

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