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.
All around the world the actions of traditional medicines were understood by their immediate sensory impacts. Click on each of burdock’s key qualities below to learn more:
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 acne0.
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, clivers, 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.
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 remedy in folk medicine and western herbal practice, most often as a carefully administered component of detoxifying regimes to reduce inflammatory conditions on the skin and in the joints
- Skin: burdock is one of the most effective remedies in reducing eczema and other dermatitis
- Digestion: a gentle bitter digestive, combining well with dandelion where appetite and digestion needs improving, especially in recovery from illness
- 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 and gout.
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.
Burdock has an excellent safety record. Practitioners have observed however that high dosing in the case of skin problems can be followed by temporary exacerbation.
Traditional Ayurvedic characteristics are
- 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
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.