Witch Hazel: A North American Inflammation-Fighter

Witch hazel is from North America. Specifically, it is native to the Midwest part of the North American continent as well as to Canada. Like many medicinal plants from this part of the world, witch hazel was first used by Native Americans. The Menominee, Osage and Iroquois tribes all made use of it and shared their knowledge with European colonists. It became one of the staple herbal medicines among newly arrived Puritans in the North East.

For the Native Americans, witch hazel signaled its special status among plant life by blooming in cold weather, unlike other plants.

The earliest form of witch hazel was a decoction made with the plant’s stems. The decoction was used in the same way that later forms of witch hazel were used: to treat inflammation. Native Americans used it for sore muscles, insect bites and burns.

Dr. Charles Hawes was the first to discover that steam distillation of witch hazel bark and twigs more effective than the decoction. A chemist named Alvan Whittemore was the first to distill and sell it commercially but still called it Hawes Extract after Charles Hawes.

Thomas Newton Dickinson took over Whittemore’s business and would refine the witch hazel production process. when his son took the business over, it grew considerably. The Dickinson family would produce witch hazel over four generations, selling it under the Dickinson’s Witch Hazel brand, which is still sold today.

The botanical name of the witch hazel plant is Hamamelis virginiana. The witch part of the name comes from an Old English word that means pliant and has no direct relationship with the occult. It is used for a variety of plants with pliant branches. The hazel part of the name came about because the English settlers saw a resemblance to hazel trees back in England.

Witch hazel flavor profile

While it can be taken internally, witch hazel’s flavor is generally considered to be bitter and unpleasantly herbaceous. Some resources recommend combining it with spices like cloves to improve the flavor for consuming as a tea.

Health benefits of witch hazel

The health benefits of witch hazel come from a list of compounds that include:

  • Flavonoids: The anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel are likely due to the flavonoids it contains like kaempferol and quercetin.
  • Proanthocyanidins: Like some flavonoids, proanthocyanidins provide some of a plant’s pigmentation. They are also responsible for some of its cholesterol-fighting benefits as well as those related to circulation.

You can use witch hazel to treat the following health conditions or to prevent them:

  • Respiratory ailments: Witch hazel tea is often used as a treatment for sore throats and other inflammatory conditions affecting the respiratory system.
  • Arthritis: The anti-inflammatory effects of witch hazel tea are beneficial for arthritis sufferers.
  • Cancer: The proanthocyanidins in witch hazel may help it to fight cancer.

Health risks

The best-known uses of witch hazel are topical ointments but it is sometimes taken orally. If you plan to ingest witch hazel, note that commercial versions do contain high amounts of tannins and have the potential to be toxic. High doses can damage your liver and kidneys and you are advised against ingesting witch hazel if you are pregnant or lactating. Witch hazel also contains small amounts of the compound safrole found in sassafras. Safrole is carcinogenic.

Common uses

The most common way to ingest witch hazel is in the form of a tea.