Butterbur is a perennial shrub that typically grows in the wet marshlands of Asia, Europe, and parts of North America. It’s also known for a host of health benefits. Potential butterbur benefits include allergy and migraine relief, and you can get the herb in health food stores and pharmacies across the country.
The leaf, root, and bulb of the butterbur plant, which is also called Petasites hybridus or Petasites japonicus, have been used to treat a number of conditions since the Middle Ages, when it reportedly battled the plague. It’s been used to treat wounds, coughs, and asthma over the centuries. Today, butterbur benefits may extend to multiple ailments.
It’s thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, act as a vasodilator, and contain other healing properties that have been used to treat issues like:
- Headaches and migraines
- Allergies like hay fever
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Stomach ulcers
- Whooping cough
Butterbur may not work for every condition, but there is sturdy scientific evidence to support its use for migraine headaches and allergies. Taken as a capsule, oil, or pill, it may be a worthwhile herbal supplement for you.
Like most supplements, you’ll want to talk to your doctor before taking butterbur. Some forms can be quite dangerous—even fatal—while others may lead to some uncomfortable side effects.
In This Article:
What Are the Benefits of Butterbur?
The main benefits of supplementing with butterbur seem to relate to its anti-inflammatory and blood flow stimulating effects. It is also rich in antioxidants, which some marketers have used to attach certain claims—like it fights cancer—to the herb, but these are not supported by scientific studies.
The active compounds that make butterbur for allergies and butterbur for headaches a good choice are:
- Petasins: These chemical compounds act as anti-inflammatory agents.
- S-isopetasin, petatewalide B, bakkenolide B: These compounds act as vasodilators to widen blood vessels and promote better circulation. They might also decrease inflammation and allergy symptoms.
- Flavonoids: The plant-based antioxidants could lower inflammation, fight bacterial infection, and help maintain cellular integrity.
But not all chemicals in butterbur are good for you. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, or PAs, are highly toxic and can lead to severe liver, lung, and circulatory system damage. Vomiting and abdominal pain due to a build-up of fluid in the abdomen may be the first sign of intoxication. Most manufacturers will remove PA during production; however, it’s essential that you purchase brands that are certified and labeled PA-free.
People who have certain plant allergies may experience some side effects from butterbur. Reactions may occur if you’re sensitive to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, and daisies.
Butterbur for Migraines
The most popular, and well-supported, use of butterbur is for migraine headache treatment. Multiple studies have shown that butterbur supplementation can significantly reduce the likelihood of migraine headaches.
The herb is also the only natural supplement to have “Level A” evidence for its abilities in preventing migraines. The designation was issued by the American Headache Society and the American Academy of Neurology in 2012, noting that butterbur is “established as effective and should be offered for migraine prevention.”
Because migraine headaches can come on strong and essentially disable victims, prevention is really the best approach. If you can stop them before they start, you don’t have to worry about the negative effects on your quality of life, or their impact on the activities you have to do every day.
The exact mechanisms that make butterbur for migraines effective are still a bit of a mystery, but they are believed to be related to butterbur’s anti-inflammatory effects and ability to act as a vasodilator. These functions can relieve pressure on blood cells in the brain and may work to prevent swelling.
There is also the possibility that petasins have calcium channel-blocking effects, which may reduce pain and inflammation.
A number of studies have demonstrated noteworthy benefits of butterbur for migraine headaches. Research has shown that dosages in the range of 50 milligrams (mg) to 150 mg per day can significantly reduce the number of migraines people experience.
One study looked at patients who regularly experienced at least three such headaches per month. Those who were given two 25-mg capsules of butterbur twice per day for eight weeks saw migraine frequency drop by 60% compared to those given a placebo. After further review by peers, the study results received a slight alteration and the reduction was lowered to 45% fewer migraines. Either result is significant.
During the study, five patients taking butterbur did not report a single migraine during the trial period. At least one migraine was reported by each member of the placebo group.
Similar results have been found in a large number of studies, thereby making butterbur an effective way of preventing the onset of migraine headaches with significant adverse effects. It should be noted, however, that the research indicates butterbur’s benefits on the number and frequency of migraines experienced. There is no evidence to suggest that it can reduce symptoms acutely, or shorten the duration of a migraine that is already underway.
If you suffer from migraines and are interested in using butterbur supplements as treatment, talk to your doctor first. It’s also not recommended to take butterbur for extended periods of time. Experts advise sticking to 12- to 16-week periods, followed by a break for a month or two. For children, four-week cycles are recommended.
Butterbur for Allergies
Another common and effective use for butterbur is for allergy relief. Research indicates that it can help treat allergic rhinitis, otherwise known as hay fever.
Butterbur seems to have a fair amount of evidence to support its benefits for hay fever, yet scientists are hesitant to say that it is definitely effective. Therefore, it may not work for everybody.
A 2007 review of existing research for butterbur’s impact on allergic symptoms found plenty of encouraging evidence to show that it may help with allergies, but suggested more research to endorse this use.
Because allergies are so prevalent and can dampen so many enjoyable life events, any kind of natural antihistamine is a welcome addition to the list of current treatments. An estimated 30% of adults and 40% of children are affected by allergies.
Studies in rats have shown that butterbur suppresses allergic symptoms, while human studies have echoed these results. One study found that people with allergies given butterbur tablets for a week showed significant improvements in allergic symptoms.
Following five days of treatment, participants showed much smaller amounts of allergy symptom-producing chemicals in their bodies. These chemicals are leukotriene (LT) and histamines.
Leukotriene and histamines are released when the body comes into contact with allergens, and stimulate all those uncomfortable symptoms—puffy eyes, runny nose, itchiness, sore throat, watery eyes, blocked ears, and sneezes. They are your body’s natural response to the air-borne invaders and part of healthy (yet sensitive) immune system. Of course, they don’t make us feel particularly good.
People take butterbur for allergies because it may block or prevent leukotriene from being released, thereby stopping the symptoms. By acting as an LT-inhibitor, it may help you avoid the inconvenience of allergic reactions.
Although butterbur has shown promise in treating hay fever, its effect on asthma or skin allergies is limited.
Many consider butterbur just as effective as over-the-counter antihistamines for handling seasonal allergies. If it is a herb you’re interested in trying during ragweed season, it might be useful.
Effective doses for allergies may include one extract tablet three to four times daily. A whole butterbur root extract dose of two 50-mg capsules has also been found effective.
Butterbur May Have Neuroprotective Properties
There is also some evidence that butterbur supplementation could possibly benefit your brain and nervous system. Both lab and animal studies have shown that butterbur extracts have the ability to block the development of seizures, increase antioxidants in the brain, and prevent the death of neurons.
One of the ways butterbur appears to protect brain health is by blocking kainic acid. Kainic acid can have negative neurological effects that lead to seizures and damage neuroconnectivity. These effects have been shown in mice studies.
There is also evidence that butterbur extract could potentially prevent free radical damage in the brain. This may lead to improved brain performance, and protect against or delay the onset of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Still, much more work needs to be done to establish any neurological benefits in humans who use the supplement.
It is definitely not advisable to start taking butterbur for this effect. To this point, any research in this area has either been in vitro or in mice and is not particularly substantial.
Although this benefit appears to be lacking in terms of practical application, butterbur does have numerous other benefits with a little more scientific backing. A healthier brain may be a positive byproduct of taking it for allergies or headaches.
Other Benefits of Butterbur
It must be emphasized that the two main benefits of butterbur, which are strongly supported by scientific evidence, are for migraine headaches and hay fever. That said, the herb could be beneficial for other conditions.
There is anecdotal, in vitro, and in vivo (typically in mice) evidence to show potential benefits, but there is no conclusive scientific evidence of the following effects in humans.
That said, butterbur may offer benefits for:
Upset stomach: Some people find butterbur an effective treatment for an upset stomach. There is insufficient scientific evidence to back this claim, and a 2011 study review actually noted that it could promote an upset stomach! The potential side effects of butterbur use include belching and digestive issues, the researchers concluded.
Urinary tract infection (UTI): Active chemicals in butterbur may help reduce spasms and irritation. This has prompted some to believe it could have value in treating UTI. It is used and supported with anecdotal evidence, but there isn’t enough research to confirm butterbur’s impact on this condition.
High cholesterol: One study showed that butterbur was effective for reducing “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in mice. This could potentially be related to the butterbur’s vasodilation effect, but is difficult to verify. Therefore, it’s not recommended that you include butterbur as a primary form of cholesterol treatment.
Male infertility: In another mouse study, butterbur extract (Petasites japonicus) stimulated the growth of cells that produce sperm. The extract was added to sperm in vitro, so it’s nearly impossible to conclude that the same benefit would result in humans.
Cancer: Virtually every product with antioxidant effects is sold as potential cancer fighter, and butterbur falls into that category. Once again looking to in vitro and mouse studies, butterbur extract has been found to stymie stomach, colon, and uterine cancer cells, as well as reduce the size of tumors. To see if these results can be replicated in humans, however, requires further study.
Butterbur Side Effects to Consider
Whenever you take a dietary, nutritional, or herbal supplement, regardless of your reasoning, there is an inherent risk. This has to do with the lack of industry regulation. Therefore, always ensure you’re buying from a trusted retailer or manufacturer that subjects products to third-party testing.
But butterbur can come with some added concerns. As mentioned earlier, pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA), active chemicals in butterbur, can lead to liver problems. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to your health that you purchase labeled, certified PA-free options.
Ingesting pure butterbur or any butterbur that’s not certified PA-free can lead to poisoning. It will have an immediate effect on your liver, and even if the issue is dealt with, it could be fatal up to two years following infection because patients rarely completely heal.
Other butterbur side effects include:
And although butterbur supplements are considered safe for adults and children alike, they should not be used for more than 16 weeks consecutively.
Butterbur: Try It for Migraines and Seasonal Allergies
If you suffer from migraine headaches or seasonal allergies like hay fever, butterbur could be a natural way to provide relief and restore some consistency and quality to your live. Dosages between 50 mg and 150 mg per day can be effective, so experiment to learn what works for you.
It’s best to start on the lower end and move up, depending on your needs. And as with any supplement, be careful. Consult a doctor before use to make sure butterbur is safe for you and that won’t have negative interactions with any medications you might be taking.
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