Butterbur, a shrub that grows in Asia, North America and Europe, may be the key to outsmarting common health conditions, including allergies and chronic headaches. The bushy plant, which can grow up to six feet tall, is found in shady, damp areas such as riverbeds, marshes and wetlands. It gets its name from its heart shaped leaves, which have fuzzy undersides. For centuries, farmers used them to wrap butter and keep it from melting.
Apothecaries have used butterbur since at least the 17th century to treat inflammation and encourage the healing of skin cuts and wounds. But its medicinal powers go far beyond the superficial, according to modern researchers who’ve identified even greater benefits.
Keep reading to learn more about the health benefits of butterbur.
What health benefits can butterbur provide?
While researchers aren’t sure why the plant extract is so beneficial, it’s thought that butterbur’s petasins are responsible for many of the benefits the plant provides.
“Petasins are active compounds found in butterbur,” says Jim Finley, CEO and founder of MyCleansePlan, a website that educates people on clean eating and detoxification to reduce exposure to toxins. “They have anti-inflammatory properties and inhibit the production of certain chemicals in the body associated with inflammation and migraine headaches.”
Let’s take a closer look at the research:
Butterbur helps prevent migraine headaches
Migraine attacks can affect anyone, but they’re particularly common in women. Studies show that women are two to three times more likely than men to suffer migraines.
Many people who suffer from chronic migraines use prescription medication to relieve symptoms. But these drugs often have side effects, including drowsiness, weight gain and insomnia.
Enter butterbur, which has been shown to reduce both the frequency of migraine headaches and their severity if/when they do occur.
When researchers in the journal Neurology had 245 adults with migraine take 50 or 75 milligrams of butterbur extract per day or a placebo, they found that those who took the butterbur extract experienced up to 48% fewer migraine attacks.
In another study in the journal Alternative Medicine Review, 60 people suffering from migraine headaches were asked to take two 25-milligram doses of butterbur or a placebo twice daily. The results? After three months, those who took the butterbur experienced a 60% reduction in the frequency of migraine headaches — with no adverse side effects.
And butterbur may have even more powerful headache-relieving properties when used alongside other therapies. For example, a study published in the European Journal of Pain found that a combination of butterbur extract and music therapy led to major reductions in the frequency of migraine headaches in chronic sufferers.
Butterbur acts a natural antihistamine
Women are more likely to suffer from seasonal allergies compared to their male counterparts, according to the journal Clinical and Translational Allergy. Once again, butterbur saves the day! Heather Moday, MD, director of the Moday Center in Philadelphia, raves, “It’s one of the most powerful natural allergy remedies, as it stops the release of leukotriene, an inflammatory chemical that triggers congestion and sneezing.”
In one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, researchers analyzed the effects of butterbur on 186 people with seasonal allergies. Participants were asked to take a butterbur extract supplement three times daily, twice daily, or a placebo for two weeks. The findings: Allergy symptoms significantly improved in people taking the butterbur extract compared to the placebo. The researchers concluded that “butterbur extract is an effective treatment for intermittent allergic rhinitis symptoms and is well tolerated.”
Perhaps even more surprising is that butterbur provides allergy relief similar to common over-the-counter medications like cetirizine (Zyrtec) and Allegra.
“Butterbur helps with allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, by acting as a natural antihistamine,” Finley says. “It inhibits the release of histamine, a chemical that triggers allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and nasal congestion.”
How butterbur compares to Zyrtec
In this study, researchers asked 131 patients to take a butterbur supplement four times daily, or one Zyrtec tablet in the evening for two consecutive weeks.
Afterward, participants were asked to evaluate their allergy symptoms and the effectiveness of their specific treatment.
Though both groups reported similar satisfactory results, two-thirds of the people who took Zyrtec reported side effects like drowsiness and fatigue. Those who took the butterbur supplement did not.
How butterbur compares to Allegra
In this study, 300 people were asked to take one tablet of butterbur extract three times daily, an Allegra tablet once daily, or a placebo.
Scientists found that the butterbur and Allegra were very effective compared to the placebo. Both treatments were well-tolerated and presented no side effects.
The researchers concluded that “despite being a herbal drug, Butterbur… should be considered as an alternative treatment for intermittent allergic rhinitis.”
Because butterbur extract is derived from a plant, it’s considered safe and usually well-tolerated. Even so, if you have any plant allergies, talk with your doctor first.
Butterbur is part of the ragweed family, so if you’re allergic to marigolds or daisies, you should avoid it. You should also avoid butterbur if you’re pregnant or nursing, as there have been few studies on how it effects a growing baby. Finally, those with any kind of liver disease (details below) are advised to steer clear of butterbur.
What should I consider when buying butterbur?
Whether you take it for headaches or allergies, before you buy butterbur, take time to read the label.
“The main risk associated with taking butterbur is the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in certain formulations,” says Finley. “PAs can be toxic to the liver and cause liver damage.” For that reason, integrative health specialist David Kiefer, MD, assistant clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin, offer this advice: “Look for ‘PA-free’ on the bottle, which means the toxins are removed.” And Dr. Moday adds, “Talk to your doctor before taking butterbur if you have liver disease.”
What’s the recommended dosage of butterbur?
Dr. Kiefer recommends taking 50 mg. three times a day. One option: Solaray Butterbur Root Extract 50 mg. ($20.88 at Amazon). But your optimal dosage may vary, depending on your health history, the specific product and the formulation.
Before taking any new supplement, including butterbur, talk with your doctor. She can analyze your health history, review your medications and determine the risk of potential interactions to see if butterbur is right for you.
“At the end of the day, it’s important to choose a high-quality butterbur product with standardized extracts,” Finley says. “Your doctor can help guide you in the right direction, keeping safety at the top of mind.”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.