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Burdock

Latin Names: Arctium lappa

Other Names: Bardane (French); Bardano (Spanish); Niu Bang Zi  (seeds – Chinese); Gobo (Japanese); Brusture (Romanian)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom; Compositae / Asteraceae  family

Part Used: Root and rhizome; also seeds and leaves

Basic Qualities: Slightly cooling and slightly drying

Other Qualities: Light, opening and draining

Taste: Primarily bitter; also slightly sweet, acrid and pungent

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – cleanses the blood of purulent or abscess toxins.  Phlegmatic – cleanses and purifies the lymph and serous fluids of the body by gently draining fluids downwards and activating the kidneys; this is its primary therapeutic action.  Choleric – a bitter tonic that stimulates the flow and secretion of bile, thus having a gentle aperient laxative effect; a natural anti-inflammatory.

Tropism: The kidneys and urinary tract; the liver and hepatobiliary system; the blood, lymph and serous fluids; the skin and pores; the colon; the throat.

Constituents and Pharmacology: Inulin, Arctigenin, plant sterols, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, mineral salts that are rich in Manganese, Magnesium, Potassium, Phosphate, Calcium, Iron and Copper.  The root also contains starches and carbohydrates.

Medicinal Properties: Alterative, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antiphlogistic, choleretic, cholagogue, diaphoretic, discussive, diuretic, hepatic, mild aperient laxative, lymphatic.

Cautions and Contraindications: Since Burdock has weak phyto-estrogens present, it is best avoided by women suffering from estrogen dependent tumors, cysts and growths.  The seeds have the property of being a discussive, meaning that they can hasten or provoke the eruption of latent skin rashes; in some cases, this property may be desired, whereas in other situations and circumstances, it can be a complicating factor.  Since Burdock root is a mild diuretic, please consult with your doctor if using diuretic medications; similarly, Burdock root can potentiate the effect of blood sugar lowering medications, leading to low blood sugar.  Since Burdock root is a mild diuretic, do not take it if severely dehydrated. 

Medicinal Uses: The root is quite mild, yet gentle and effective as an alterative or cleanser of the blood and lymph, especially in acne and other chronic skin conditions in which pustules are present, as well as having a mild diuretic effect that gently seeps and drains stagnant and/or putrid fluids downwards, eliminating them through the kidneys and urinary tract.  Because Burdock root is also a bitter tonic, it also targets the liver and hepatobiliary system, stimulating the flow and production of bile, and working well with other hepatic herbs like Dandelion root.  Burdock seeds, which is the main part used in Chinese herbal medicine, are generally stronger and more potent in their medicinal effects than the root, and also have some other medicinal effects and actions that the root does not have.  They are stronger in their alterative or blood cleansing properties, have antihistamine and anti-swelling effects, especially on the throat, as well as a cooling and sedating diaphoretic effect, not to mention their discussive effects that can promote the eruption of latent skin rashes.  Since the alterative or blood cleansing action of Burdock root is milder, there is no danger that its use will provoke the eruption of latent skin rashes, although the same can’t be said of the seeds.  Although Burdock root has a gentle aperient laxative effect on the bowels, with the seeds, this laxative effect, as well as the cholagogue effect, is more pronounced.  The leaves are used mainly as a diuretic.

Preparation and Dosage: Since Burdock root is gentle and mild in its medicinal effects and action, it can be used liberally, in standard dosages, in herbal decoctions or powders.  The Japanese cook and eat Burdock root as a vegetable, calling it Gobo.  The seeds, however, are considerably more potent, roughly twice as strong as the root, so it is generally used in smaller doses or proportions in herbal decoctions and powders; whereas the root can be used as 10 to 20 percent or more of the decoction or powder, or as all of it, 5 to 7 percent is best for the seeds.  Because the seeds are more potent, they can also be used in alcoholic herbal extracts, or tinctures.  The dose is ten to fifteen drops.

Herbal Formulation: Burdock root is a very versatile herb in decoction formulas, generally being combined with other roots and barks in equal portions, wherever a gentle cleansing of the liver, kidneys, skin, blood and lymph is desired.  Burdock root gently cleanses while tonifying and restoring key vital organs like the liver and the kidneys, so it can be used either in tonic or detoxifying formulas.  Being rich in Inulin, a Fructo-Oligo-Saccharide, or FOS, Burdock root can be used in formulas to lower or stabilize blood sugar levels and metabolism in type 2 diabetes, and also in bowel tonics, since Inulin is a prebiotic that nourishes beneficial flora in the intestines.  Burdock root blends well with other Inulin rich roots like Chicory root, Dandelion root, Echinacea root, and Elecampane root, depending on the effects desired.  With Burdock seeds, the alterative, antiphlogistic, diaphoretic, discussive and detoxifying effects are more intense, so the seeds are a powerful ingredient in detox formulas, either in teas / decoctions, powders, tinctures, and other preparations. 

Classic Combinations: One of the best herbal combos to use, especially in decoction formulas, is that of Burdock root and Dandelion root in equal parts.  Both herbs are rich in the prebiotic Inulin for intestinal health, and both have mild diuretic effects to gently drain excess fluids from the body, with Burdock root being the stronger of the two in this respect.  Both herbs have detoxifying effects on the liver and kidneys, with Dandelion root focusing more on the liver, and Burdock root more on the kidneys.  Both herbs neutralize purulent toxins in the blood and lymph, and both herbs have a beneficial effect on lowering and stabilizing blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes.  All in all, a very complementary and synergistic combination.  Other Inulin rich roots can be substituted for Dandelion root and combined with Burdock root, with a consequent shifting or modulation of therapeutic emphasis.  With Echinacea root, for example, the emphasis is on cleansing the blood and lymph, especially in acne and other purulent skin disorders, as well as lymphatic congestion and obstruction. With Chicory root, for example, the liver detoxification, diuretic and mild aperient laxative effects are enhanced.  In Chinese herbal medicine, Burdock seeds are combined with Black Cohosh to promote the eruption of skin rashes, and with other herbs like Tree Peony or Angelica dahurica root for general detoxification, especially in purulent dyscrasias of the blood.

Description: Burdock is a plant that prefers moist, marshy soils and environments, having long, penetrating taproots and rootstock, large, broad leaves and small, thin grey seeds or fruit.  As a member of the Compositae / Asteraceae family, it is closely related to Dandelion, Chicory, Elecampane and Echinacea, and shares many similar therapeutic properties and chemical constituents in common with them.  According to the Doctrine of Signatures, because Burdock likes to grow in moist, marshy soils, it is has a diuretic effect that helps to drain excess fluids from the body, and to purify and detoxify the vital fluids, like the blood and lymph.  Because the outer husk of the Burdock fruit has a lot of prickles or spines, it is often commonly called Cocklebur in English.  The steamed, sautéed or otherwise cooked root is commonly eaten as a vegetable in Japan, where it is called Gobo.  In Chinese herbal medicine, the seeds are used medicinally, and are called Niu Bang Zi.  Even the leaves can be used medicinally, having a stronger diuretic effect than the root to help drain excess fluids from the body.

Burdock root is probably best known as a blood cleanser in chronic skin conditions, like eczema, psoriasis and acne.  It does this by cleansing the lymphatic system, and by neutralizing purulent toxins in the blood.  Being mildly cooling in nature, Burdock root also has anti-inflammatory properties that help to quell chronic heat and inflammation.  Studies have even shown Burdock root to be effective in treating the clinical signs of aging skin.  After all, the Japanese eat Burdock root as a vegetable, and most Japanese have very clear and beautiful skin.  It could very well be argued that only since abandoning their traditional diet for more unhealthy Western fare have skin conditions like acne become more common among Japanese youth.  While Burdock root is a gentle but effective blood cleanser in chronic skin conditions, Burdock seeds, or Niu Bang Zi, which are used in Chinese herbal medicine, can be used, often along with other diaphoretic and detoxifying herbs, to promote the eruption of latent skin rashes.  This property of being able to bring latent skin rashes to the surface is what Greek Medicine calls a discussive herb.

Among herbalists, Burdock root enjoys a reputation for being a hormonal balancer, due to the presence of phytosterols in the root.  Since some of these appear to be estrogen precursors, there are those who believe it to be contraindicated for women with estrogen dependent cysts, tumors and growths.  The old English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper felt that Burdock was an herb of Venus, and considered the root to be singularly powerful for moving a displaced uterus – applied to the head to draw the uterus upwards in the case of prolapse, or applied to the soles of the feet to hasten delivery for women whose labor is difficult or obstructed.  Proper hormonal balance is considered to be important in treating skin disorders like acne, where Burdock root may also be of service as a hormonal balancer.  Burdock root is also used in salves and ointments to treat bruises and skin ulcers, and Culpeper even considered it to help those who have been bitten by a mad dog.

Burdock root is a powerful cleanser of the blood and lymph that combines very well with other alterative herbs like Echinacea root and Prickly Ash bark, with which it is commonly used in blood cleansing formulas used to treat cancer.  The active ingredient in Burdock root that appears to have a natural cancer fighting ability is Arctigenin, which is a lignin found in the root.  Arctigenin appears to have the ability to stop or discourage cancer cells from reproducing and metastasizing, by interfering with particular proteins produced by the cancer cell called NPAT proteins.  In fact, laboratory studies have shown promising results for Arctigenin in the treatment of mammary, colon and pancreatic cancer, as well as lung and stomach cancer.

As a blood cleanser and detoxifier, Burdock can also be valuable in the treatment of colds and flu, especially those of a hot or febrile nature, with Burdock seeds being the more powerful herb for doing so, since it has stronger diaphoretic or sweat provoking properties.  Burdock seeds are also an antiphlogistic herb that brings down swelling, especially in a swollen, sore throat that is characteristic of colds and flu of the hot, febrile variety.  As an anti-inflammatory herb, Burdock has shown an ability to bring down the level of substances in the blood that are commonly associated with chronic inflammatory conditions, like C reactive protein.  Burdock root is a valuable addition to any herb formula due to its ability to gently cleanse and detoxify while it also has a restorative effect on detoxifying organs like the liver, kidneys and spleen.  The Inulin that it contains helps to reduce and regulate blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes, as well as being a prebiotic to nourish and encourage the growth of beneficial flora in the intestines, as well as stimulating immunity in general.  All in all, Burdock is a very useful and versatile herb.

Sources: Burdock Root

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpeper, pg. 51.  Copyright Wordsworth Editions Ltd., Ware, Hertfordshire, UK 1995
The Little Herb Encyclopedia, by Jack Richason, ND, pp. 40 – 41.  Copyright 1995 by Jack Richason.  Published by Woodland Health Books, Pleasant Grove, Utah.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.