Butterbur can be found growing along rivers, ditches, and marshy areas in northern Asia, Europe, and parts of North America. It sends up stalks of reddish flowers very early in spring, before producing very large heart-shaped leaves with a furry gray underside. Once the leaves appear, butterbur somewhat resembles rhubarb—one of its common names is bog rhubarb. It is also sometimes referred to as "umbrella leaves" due to the size of its foliage. Other more or less descriptive common names abound, including blatterdock, bogshorns, butter-dock, butterly dock, capdockin, flapperdock, and langwort.
Butterbur is often described as possessing an unpleasant smell, but being malodorous hasn't protected it from harvesting by humans. The plant has a long history of use as an anti-spasmodic, thought to be effective for such conditions as stomach cramps, whooping cough, and asthma.
Externally, butterbur has been applied as a poultice over wounds or skin ulcerations.
What Is Butterbur Used for Today?
A special toxin-free butterbur extract has been investigated for the treatment of a variety of illnesses. Two double-blind trials suggest that this butterbur extract may be useful for preventing migraine headaches
There is some evidence that butterbur has anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects,
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Butterbur?
Two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies suggest that butterbur extract may be helpful for preventing migraines, although the optimum dosage is not clear.
Butterbur extract was tested as a migraine preventive in a
study involving 60 men and women who experienced at least three migraines per month.
The results were positive: both the number of migraine attacks and the total number of days of migraine pain were significantly reduced in the treatment group as compared to the placebo group. Three out of four individuals taking butterbur reported improvement, as compared to only one out of four in the placebo group. No significant side effects were noted.
In another double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed by different researchers, 202 people with migraine headaches received either 50 mg twice daily of butterbur extract, 75 mg twice daily, or placebo.
Based on these two studies, it does appear that butterbur extract is helpful for preventing migraines, and that 75 mg twice daily is more effective than 50 mg twice daily. However, further research is necessary to establish this with certainty.
Hay Fever (Allergic Rhinitis)
Butterbur appears to affect the immune system in ways that suggest it should be helpful for
In a 2-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 186 people with intermittent allergic rhinitis, use of butterbur at a dose of three standardized tablets daily, or one tablet daily, reduced allergy symptoms as compared to placebo.
In another double-blind study, 330 people were given either butterbur extract (one tablet three times daily), the antihistamine fexofenadine (Allegra), or placebo.
A previous 2-week, double-blind study of 125 individuals with hay fever compared a standardized butterbur extract against the antihistamine drug certizine.
It's not clear how butterbur might work. Unlike standard antihistamines, it does not appear to reduce reactions on allergy skin tests.
The usual dosage of butterbur is 50-75 mg twice daily of a standardized extract that has been processed to remove potentially dangerous chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (see Safety Issues
Warning : Use of any butterbur product that contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids is definitely not recommended.
In studies and postmarketing surveillance involving adults and children, burping and other mild gastrointestinal complaints have been the main side effect of butterbur extract. 16, 26,28
Butterbur contains liver-toxic and possibly carcinogenic components called pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
Butterbur should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, young children, or people with severe kidney or liver disease, until further safety testing has been performed.
3. Scheidegger C, Dahinden C, Wiesmann U. Effects of extracts and of individual components from Petasites on prostaglandin synthesis in cultured skin fibroblasts and on leucotriene synthesis in isolated human peripheral leucocytes. Pharm Acta Helv . 1998;72:376–378.
8. Scheidegger C, Dahinden C, Wiesmann U. Effects of extracts and of individual components from Petasites on prostaglandin synthesis in cultured skin fibroblasts and on leucotriene synthesis in isolated human peripheral leucocytes. Pharm Acta Helv . 1998;72:376–378.
17. Lee DK, Gray RD, Robb FM, et al. A placebo-controlled evaluation of butterbur and fexofenadine on objective and subjective outcomes in perennial allergic rhinitis. Clin Exp Allergy . 2004;34:646-9.
20. Lee D, Carstairs I, Haggart K, et al. Butterbur, a herbal remedy, attenuates adenosine monophosphate induced nasal responsiveness in seasonal allergic rhinitis. Clin Exp Allergy . 2003;33:882-886.
21. Lee DK, Gray RD, Robb FM, et al. A placebo-controlled evaluation of butterbur and fexofenadine on objective and subjective outcomes in perennial allergic rhinitis. Clin Exp Allergy . 2004;34:646-9.
23. Schapowal A. Butterbur Ze339 for the treatment of intermittent allergic rhinitis: dose-dependent efficacy in a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg . 2004;130:1381-6.
24. [no authors listed] Treating intermittent allergic rhinitis: a prospective, randomized, placebo and antihistamine-controlled study of Butterbur extract Ze 339. Phytother Res . 2005 Aug 22 [Epub ahead of print].
25. [no authors listed] Treating intermittent allergic rhinitis: a prospective, randomized, placebo and antihistamine-controlled study of Butterbur extract Ze 339. Phytother Res. 2005 Aug 22 [Epub ahead of print].
27. Gex-Collet C, Imhof L, Brattstrom A et al. The butterbur extract petasin has no effect on skin test reactivity induced by different stimuli: a randomized, double-blind crossover study using histamine, codeine, methacholine, and aeroallergen solutions. J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol. 2006;16:156-61.
Last reviewed April 2009 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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