Butterbur: The Migraine Herb

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Butterbur is a herb belonging to the Asteraceae family, which makes it a relative of the dandelion, arnica, and of feverfew. It originated in Asia and can be found growing there as well as in parts of Europe and North America. It has a preference for wet ground and is typically found growing in marshes and other damp areas. Because it is native to Asia, it is considered an invasive species. It spreads very quickly in the right environment.

In Ancient Greece, the broad leaves of the butterbur plant were once used as hats by Greek shepherds. The hats were called petasos, which is the origin of the plant’s Latin name: Petasites hybridus. The butterbur name comes from the fact that the leaves were used as a wrapping for butter during warm weather. They kept the butter cool. Butterbur’s other names include lagwort, which is what it is called in the UK. It is also sometimes called bog rhubarb or coltsfoot.

Dioscorides wrote about butterbur in the 1st century. He recommended the leaves as a treatment for skin ulcers. The leaves were to be pounded and applied topically. In the 1500s, Gerard wrote that dried and powdered butterbur root that was mixed with wine was a good treatment for plague because it acted as a diaphoretic. A century later, Nicholas Culpeper would write that butterbur was a tonic and good for treating shortness of breath. At around this time, butterbur was also being used to treat wounds.

Butterbur received widespread attention in the 20th century when Karl Bucher discovered some of the plant’s medicinal properties.

Butterbur flavor profile

Butterbur is not normally consumed for its flavor; however, it is described as having a flavor that is bitter and earthy.

Health benefits of butterbur

The health benefits of butterbur come from its constituents, which include:

  • Sesquiterpenes: Sesquiterpenes are a class of terpenes with powerful health benefits that include anti-cancer activity.
  • Petasins: Petasins are believed to have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.

You can use butterbur to treat or prevent health issues like:

  • Migraines: Studies have shown butterbur to be effective for migraine prevention when compared to placebos. Butterbur was effective for reducing the length of migraine attacks as well as their frequency.
  • Allergic rhinitis: Butterbur has significant effects on the immune system thus mitigating allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever. Rat and human studies have determined that the herb is effective for suppressing the allergic reaction.

Health concerns

Like comfrey, butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are potentially toxic to the liver and certain animal studies have shown them to be carcinogenic. As a result, some experts believe that no part of the raw and unprocessed plant should be consumed. Instead, they recommend that standardized butterbur extracts with the pyrrolizidine alkaloids removed should be used. The National Institutes for Health considers these products generally safe for consumption. You may be able to limit the risk from toxic compounds in butterbur by making an infusion with butterbur as opposed to eating parts of the plant. The reason is that most of the compounds are not water-soluble.

Common uses

In Albania, the Aromanian community uses butterbur in a dish formulated specifically for breastfeeding mothers. In the dish — called panacucu — the butterbur is cooked with flour and water. Japanese methods for preparing butterbur include in stir-fried dishes as well as battered in tempura batter and fried.