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Burdock is one of the classic European cleansing remedies

Burdock

Arctium lappa Asteraceae

Burdock has been a traditional remedy for eczema and other skin problems, and to reduce fluid retention.

  • How does it feel?

    The taste of burdock root is a mix of slight acridity, slight bitterness and a mucilaginous property. None of these tastes dominate though overall it is the bitter and mucilaginous properties that linger longest on the palate.

  • What can I use it for?

    In European traditions burdock is one of the classic ‘blood cleansers’, ‘blood purifers’, ‘depurative’ or ‘alterative’, remedies that were seen in various ways reduce toxins, particularly associated with skin problems. The root has been the part of the plant most often used, although the seeds have also been used for the same purposes and were the choice particularly among European settlers in North America.

    The European Medicines Agency describes burdock as a traditional herbal medicine to increase the amount of urine (to flush the urinary tract during minor urinary tract complaints), for temporary loss of appetite, and for the treatment of seborrhoeic skin conditions (seborrheic eczema is associated with blocked sebaceous glands, especially around hair follicles, and is similar to acne.

    These compilations of traditional reputations distil into burdock having three main roles, 1) as a diuretic to reduce fluid congestion and relieve urinary discomforts, 2) as a bitter digestive and 3) as a detox remedy especially when there is eczema or other skin conditions.

    The leaves, seeds and root were also used externally, all having a soothing mucilaginous property and in the case of the seeds an oiliness that was highly regarded as a skin tonic. As Culpeper noted “The Burdock leaves are cooling and moderately drying… wherby good for old ulcers and sores”.

  • Into the heart of Burdock

    Burdock is one of the most impressive internal treatments for skin problems in traditional western herbal medicine.

    It appears to detoxify, in part through the urinary tract, probably through the digestive system as well. However clinical experience is that it appears to work in the tissues themselves, removing inflammatory metabolites directly into the circulation. Thus burdock is more likely than other depurative remedies temporarily to exacerbate skin problems, a problem much reduced by mixing it with other more eliminatory remedies, in western traditions including dandelion, artichoke leaf, cleavers, figwort, fumitory, sweet violet, red clover, yellow dock and various other diuretic and laxative remedies.

    One image to understand this is that around 85% of the body’s fluids are in its tissues, with only 15% in the circulation: too precipitate a ‘dumping’ of tissue metabolites into the circulation could lead to a form of toxaemia, marked in part by increased inflammation on the skin or elsewhere. Combining this ‘pushing’ property of burdock with the ‘pulling’ eliminatory properties of other cleansing remedies will reduce this impact. Another image is that if a cleansing blend was a train, burdock would be the locomotive.

    So a good policy with burdock is to start with a low dose and ‘titrate’ it upwards, always combining it with other cleansing remedies.

  • Traditional uses

    The root has been used Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for congested and toxic conditions, with recent application to diabetes and in Japan in cancer care. The seeds are used in TCM for septic conditions, boils, abscesses, and especially for throat inflammations. They are also used as cooling diaphoretic remedies in fever management and a diuretic formerly applied to dropsy and other cases of oedema.

    With sheep sorrel, slippery elm, and rhubarb root, burdock root is a component of ESSIAC, a formulation originally promoted as an alternative cancer treatment by a Canadian nurse Rene Caisse (ESSIAC is her name spelt backwards). This blend is clearly intended as a detox or cleansing regime.

  • What practitioners say

    Burdock is a popular and regularly used remedy in western herbal practice, most often as a carefully administered component of detoxifying regimes to reduce inflammatory conditions on the skin and in the joints

    Lymphatic: A mild diaphoretic (sweat-inducer) which also supports the movement in the lymphatic system which could help explain its effectiveness as a cleanser or purifier, potentially eliminating harmful toxins from the body. Burdock is often applied by herbalists to stimulate movement in the lymphatic system (5).

    Skin: Burdock is one of the most effective remedies for the treatment of psoriasis, eczema and other dermatitis (7). It is also used in a number of other inflammatory skin conditions, this is largely due to its unique effect on both the liver and the lymphatic system (5). It is specific in the treatment of seborrhoeic skin conditions (6).

    Digestion: A gentle bitter digestive, combining well with dandelion where appetite and digestion needs improving, especially in recovery from illness. Burdock is indicated as an appetite stimulant for anorexia nervosa. 

    Urinary: Burdock is also often used by herbalists as a diuretic (increasing urine production and elimination). By increasing the output of fluid from the body, burdock has a flushing effect upon the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary tract complaints (6).

    Metabolic and inflammatory: Burdock as a reputation for supporting other herbs in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

    Musculoskeletal: Its diuretic properties are associated with benefits in osteoarthritis, gout and rheumatic conditions (7).

  • Research

    Much is now known about the constituents of burdock and their individual activities, but there is not much research on burdocks traditional uses (2, 3). We have shared some relevant studies below.

    Acute colonic diverticulitis (ACD) is a common gastrointestinal condition, with clinical presentation ranging from mild abdominal pain to peritonitis with sepsis. Colonic diverticular bleeding (CDB) is the most common cause of lower gastrointestinal bleeding in adults. The experimental group received 1.5g of burdock tea three times a day, and the control group did not receive any treatment. There was a lower recurrence of ACD 5/47 (10.6%) vs 14/44 (31.8%) in the control group. The recurrence-free duration was also observed in the burdock tea at 59.3 months vs 45.1 months for the control group. This randomized controlled trial demonstrated that daily consistent consumption of burdock tea could be effective for the prevention and reduction of ACD recurrence but not for CDB recurrence (8). 

    A study was conducted on 36 people between 50-70 years old suffering from bilateral knee osteoarthritis. They were given 3 cups a day of burdock root tea (2g of tea steeped in 150ml of boiled water for 10 mins) for six weeks. Blood lipid profiles and blood pressure were measured, and a significant improvement was seen in both parameters. The patients in the burdock group had significantly decreased levels of inflammatory markers (IL-6, hs- CRP and malondialdehyde) with significant increase in antioxidant activity (4). 

    A review which shared the pharmacology of burdock showed it has anti-inflammatory activities via inhibition of inducible nitric oxide synthase, and therefore inhibition of nitric oxide production. It has also been shown to suppress of pro-inflammatory cytokine expression, inhibit nuclear factor-kappa B pathway and activate antioxidant enzymes which increases scavenging of free radicals. These mechanisms are thought to be the basis of burdocks anti-inflammatory action and may be how it can support inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis (3). 

  • Did you know?

    The well-known dandelion and burdock drink originated in Britain from the Middle Ages as a light fermented decoction of the two roots, picking up on their spring-cleaning associations. The popular carbonated drink was launched in 1871 in Yorkshire, to become a global commodity in the 20th century.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Apart from occasional reports of contact dermatitis from the fresh plant, burdock has no significant safety concerns. As indicated elsewhere in this monograph it has quite pronounced detoxifying effects that can be associated with temporary exacerbations of dermatitis and other skin problems. These are not long-term risks and are reduced in clinical practice by combining burdock with other eliminatory remedies.

  • Interactions

    None known

  • Contraindications

    Not to be used where there are known allergies to plants in the Asteraceaea (Daisy) family.

    Pregnant women or women trying to become pregnant should avoid burdock.

  • Preparation

    • Decoction
    • Tincture
    • Capsule
  • Dosage

    Tincture (1:5 25%): Take between 2-4ml three time a day.

    The full traditional dose is 3 – 18 g per day of the dried root by decoction. However, it is often wise to ‘titrate’ the remedy: starting with a low dose and working upwards.

  • Plant parts used

    All parts of the plant can be used for food or medicinal purposes, but mostly the taproot is used in herbal medicine.

  • Constituents

    • bitter sesquiterpene lactones (including arctiopicrin)
    • lignans (eg. arctigenin and its glycoside arctiin, neoarctin A and B, arctignan D and E, lappaol A, C, and H)
    • inulin and pectic polysaccharides
    • phytosterols (including daucosterol and B-sitosterol)
    • acetylenes including arctinones, arctinols, arctinal, arctic acids
    • caffeoylquinic, chlorogenic and hydroxycinnamic acids
    • triterpenoids
    • various volatiles

    Arctigenin has strong anti-inflammatory properties in laboratory research (1). It is higher in the seeds used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) bitter, pungent
    • Virya (action) cooling
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) sweet
    • Guna (quality) cold, dry and heavy
    • Dosha effect: steadies vata and reduces excessive pitta and kapha
    • Dhatu (tissue) plasma, blood
    • Srotas (channels) urinary, blood, digestive
  • Habitat

    Burdock species, native to Europe and Asia, have been naturalised throughout North America. Though regarded as weeds in the United States, they are cultivated for their edible root in Asia. Burdock thrives along riverbanks, disturbed habitats, roadsides, vacant lots, and fields.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status: This species is classified as ‘Least Concern’ due to its widespread distribution, stable populations and no major threats.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown.

  • How to grow

    Burdock is a herbaceous biennial which is easy to grow. It can be introduced to contained areas of the garden or in pots, but steps will need to be taken to contain the plant as it successfully seeds itself in autumn. Simple remove the seed heads.

    • Burdock prefers loamy soil and a neutral pH in areas with average water. 
    • Seeds should be stratified. Around 80 to 90% of seeds will germinate when sown directly in spring after all danger of frost has passed. 
    • Plant seeds 1/8 inches under the soil and keep evenly moist. Germination takes place in one to two weeks. 
    • Once germinated, young plants can grow quickly but it takes some time to establish a taproot of sufficient size to harvest. 
    • Plants should be spaced at least 18 inches (46 cm.) apart. For the most part, burdock has no significant pest or disease issues and is easy to grow and maintain.
  • Recipe

    Let me glow tea

    This delicious recipe is a healing blend of chlorophyll-rich herbs that purify the blood, soothe the liver and cleanse the skin, helping you glow from the inside out. Good for anyone with pimples, acne or other skin blemishes.

    Ingredients:

    • Nettle leaf 3g
    • Fennel seed 2g
    • Peppermint leaf 2g
    • Dandelion root 2g
    • Burdock root 2g
    • Red clover 2g
    • Turmeric root powder 1g
    • Licorice root 1g
    • Lemon juice a twist per cup

    This will serve 2 cups of beautifying tea.

    Method:

    • Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except the lemon). Add 500ml (18fl oz) freshly boiled filtered water.
    • Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain and add the lemon.
  • References

    1. Gao Q, Yang M, Zuo Z. (2018) Overview of the anti-inflammatory effects, pharmacokinetic properties and clinical efficacies of arctigenin and arctiin from Arctium lappa L. Acta Pharmacol Sin. 39(5): 787-801. doi: 10.1038/aps.2018.32
    2. Wang D, Bădărau AS, Swamy MK, et al. (2019) Arctium Species Secondary Metabolites Chemodiversity and Bioactivities. Front Plant Sci. 10: 834. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2019.00834
    3. Chan YS, Cheng LN, Wu JH, et al. (2011) A review of the pharmacological effects of Arctium lappa (burdock). Inflammopharmacology. 19(5): 245-54. doi: 10.1007/s10787-010-0062-4.
    4. Maghsoumi-Norouzabad L, Alipoor B, Abed R, et al. (2016) Effects of Arctium lappa L. (Burdock) root tea on inflammatory status and oxidative stress in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Int J Rheum Dis. 19(3): 255-61. doi: 10.1111/1756- 185X.12477.
    5. HerbRally. (n.d.). Burdock Monograph. [online] Available at: https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/burdock.
    6. Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) Community herbal monograph on Arctium lappa L., radix Final Discussion in Working Party on Community monographs and Community. (2010). [online] Available at: https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/herbal-monograph/final-community-herbal-monograph-arctium-lappa-l-radix_en.pdf.
    7. British Herbal Medicine Association. Scientific Committee (2003). A guide to traditional herbal medicines : a sourcebook of accepted traditional uses of medicinal plants within Europe. London: British Herbal Medicine Association.
    8. Mizuki, A. et al. (2019) Effects of burdock tea on recurrence of colonic diverticulitis and diverticular bleeding: An open-labelled randomized clinical trial, Scientific reports. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6494891/ (Accessed: January 12, 2023). 

     

Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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