Manataka® American Indian Council







Arctium lappa, A. minus

By Jim McDonald,

Burdock is a very common biennial plant found throughout [the world]. It grows along roadsides, in fields, at the edges of woods, and anywhere the Earth has been disturbed. In its first year, it forms a cluster of large leaves, resembling rhubarb. These grow from a carrot like root that may penetrate over two feet into the ground. It is this root that is most often used as an herbal medicine. After a year of growth, the plant puts forth a branched stalk with smaller leaves and, in the late summer, purple-pink flowers. In autumn, these flowers are replaced by round brown burrs that persist into the winter. The seeds contained in these burrs are also used medicinally. Their use is similar, though the seeds are used for acute disorders (their action is quicker to manifest, but less permanent) while the root is preferred for chronic conditions (it's slower to manifest, but yields more permanent results).

A telling of Burdock's virtues would be long winded indeed, as it has merit in the address of almost any ailment or imbalance. At the same time, it is difficult to describe the medicinal use of the plant concretely, as it is a true tonic, reliable but subtle in effect. I use it frequently in creating herbal blends for people, in various combinations with other plants. What Burdock brings to any formula is nourishment and balance. High in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, it both provides nourishment and assists the body in its absorption. It is a restorative tonic par excellence, and helps to improve the functioning of the entire being when taken regularly for a prolonged period. Infrequent or sporadic use is unlikely to yield optimum results. Burdock is a nourishing herbal food; consider it a part of your diet, not a supplement.

Perhaps the archetypal blood purifier, Burdock makes an excellent metabolic tonic, improving the functioning of the liver and kidneys, digestion, lymphatic and endocrine systems. Matthew Wood describes the "metabolic scenario" calling for the use of such a remedy: "the liver, the seat of metabolism, is not burning cleanly enough to remove all catabolic waste products, while the kidneys and skin are overburdened or are themselves incapable of removing these waste products. The lymphatics, which assist all these organs, also enter the picture. They may be pictured as getting slowly congested as, perhaps, a sort of haze of incomplete metabolites float around in the tissues." One can imagine that, in such a state, a person would suffer from a diminished sense of well being - nothing that they could put their finger on, or that could be diagnosed and treated by their family doctor, but that nonetheless prevents them from feeling truly healthy and vibrant. In 19th Century American herbalism, such a state might have been referred to as "scrofula" or "bad blood". Burdock addresses this type of condition by nourishing the liver, which results in an improvement in metabolism, stimulating lymphatic functioning, which brings nourishment to and cleanses cells of metabolic byproducts, and by stimulating the excretion of urine through the kidneys, which aids in the elimination of the wastes stirred up by its other actions. Additionally, I believe that alterative herbs such as Burdock help to "coordinate" the metabolism so that everything is working "in synch". The result is a generalized improvement in the body's metabolic functions, which in turn increases the efficiency by which nutrients are absorbed and energy is utilized. This increased efficiency allows us to more fully experience the vibrancy of well being.

It is this tonic action that makes Burdock such an incredible restorative agent. In any case of wasting disease, Burdock's ability to nourish the body will be of benefit. Its use is associated with a plethora of debilitative diseases: In the treatment of cancer it is one of the four herbs used in the "Essiac" formula, it's an ingredient in the Hoxsey/Trifolium formula, and herbalist Donald Yance states that it exhibits marked anti-tumor activity. I have used it in combination with Dandelion leaf and root, Milk Thistle and Schizandra Berries as a restorative and protective tonic for the liver to aid a man with Hepatitis C, and herbalist Stephen Buhner used a formula containing Burdock to treat his own affliction (he outlines his protocol in his "Herbs for Hepatitis C and the Liver" from Storey Books). There is also evidence to show Burdock's potential merit in treating HIV/AIDS. I would likely include Burdock in any formulas I would create for treating severe degenerative conditions.

One should not assume, however, that one's life need be in peril to make use of Burdock. I was talking with my friend Betty Rinaldi, an herbalist in St. Clair Shores, and we both agreed that Burdock tops our list of all around super-good-for-you herbs; herbs that everybody would do well to use (well… alongside Nettle…). I’m often asked what the best way to take Burdock is; as a tea, a tincture, or to eat it. The answer is to ingest it in every way you can think of. Burdock possesses so many virtues that no one way of taking it can encompass them all. Teas are not better than tinctures and soups are not better than stir frys. Again, think of Burdock as a nourishing herbal food; something you work into your diet and consume regularly, prepared in as many differing manners as you can dream up.

Burdock’s medicinal virtues have always been associated with common manifestations of metabolic imbalance. Particular among these is the treatment of skin diseases, ranging from acne and boils to psoriasis and eczema. The underlying theory behind this use is that if the liver, lymph and kidneys are not effectively detoxifying and excreting toxins, then the body will attempt to cleanse itself through its other organ of elimination: the skin. Whether this elimination takes on the form of septic eruptions such as boils and acne or dry inflammations like psoriasis depends on the constitution of the individual and the nature of the imbalance. The prolonged use of Burdock will, in time, improve the metabolism and help to restore the proper channels and functioning of elimination.

Burdock also exerts a normalizing action on the sebaceous glands, which distribute the oils the keep the skin pliable, and so can be used in cases where the skin is too dry, too oily, or too oily here and too dry there. Physiomedicalist William Cook referred to it as a “sebaceous diaphoretic”, saying, “Besides capillary and sudoriferous glands, the skin contains a large number of sebaceous or oil glands. These give to the surface its natural softness and pliancy. They sometimes become quite deficient in action; and then the skin becomes harsh and chaffy, and no amount of watery sudoresis (sweating) can restore its oily elasticity. A very small class of diaphoretics expend their main influence upon these sebaceous glands. The seeds of Arctium lappa are among the best diffusives in this class; and the roots of Arctium and the bark of Celastrus scandens among the permanents”. By referring to “diffusives” and “permanents”, Cook is saying that the seeds are of great benefit in treating acute flare ups of such conditions, but the root should be used regularly to get to the root of the imbalance.

Burdock leaves bruised or blanched and applied externally as a poultice is a traditional application in bringing boils to a head. The drawing action of Plantain, Peach leaves, and/or Honeysuckle flowers would lend itself well to such a poultice, and aid in treating the infection as well. William Cook stated that the expressed juice of Burdock leaves (a tablespoon three times daily) helps to address boils internally, presumably through some lymphatic action. Burdock leaves have also been blended with egg whites (Culpepper) or butter (Sauer) to ease the pain, prevent infection, and promote the healing of burns. I once had the opportunity to test this, and found that the leaves poulticed with egg whites on a burn quickly relieved the pain, and the injury healed quickly and fully, with no scarring.

Burdock seeds possess a slight "diffusive" quality, producing a "tingly" sensation on the tongue when chewed or taken as an extract; this indicates that some of its virtues are quickly taken up via the nervous system and put to immediate action. In this effect, it is similar to Echinacea, though much milder, and I find that Burdock seed can increase the effectiveness of Echinacea in treating colds and flus, particularly if there are swollen glands or tonsils (probably on account of its lymphatic actions). William Cook also says the seeds can ease the nausea caused by Lobelia.

Burdock is also highly regarded for its action on the urinary tract, being of benefit to kidney and bladder infections, inflammations and kidney stones. Through its diuretic action (which is strongest in the fresh leaves), it will add volume to dark, scanty and/or scalding urine, which is an important sign of renal imbalance that should not be ignored, lest the condition worsen and more serious imbalances manifest. Burdock seeds have often been used as a remedy for kidney stones and urinary calculi. Cook states they "are very serviceable in irritation and aching if the bladder, scalding urine, and urine charged with mucous and gray sediments." Colonial herbalist John Sauer, who wrote one of the first herbals in the "New World", stated that "The seed, taken in one-quint (1/8 ounce) doses every two weeks, will prevent stones in the kidneys and bladder." Queen Anne's Lace Seed would be an excellent accompaniment in such a treatment. Sauer recommends horseback "riding or travel by carriage" after administration, in order to agitate the fluid in the kidneys and facilitate the dissolving of the stones. My understanding is that Burdock seed increases the solvency of the fluid in the kidneys, and that jostling the body will further aid in this process. This is an aspect of treating stones I’ve never seen in contemporary herbals. Horses are hard to come by for many of us (carriages are an even greater rarity), but any vigorous physical activity would likely suffice. For the sedentary, a drive down and old dirt road after a thunderstorm might be able to stand in for a carriage.

Also associated with its diuretic virtues is its traditional usage in treating gout, arthritis and rheumatism, which are often caused by a lack of fluids, or perhaps internal "heat" that "cooks down" fluids and causes the precipitation of solid crystals in the joints, which creates friction, and as a result, inflammation. By increasing the volume of urine excreted, Burdock brings these wastes back into solution and expels them from the body, thereby removing the cause of the inflammation. Nettle would be an excellent accompaniment towards this end.

Burdock has been referred to as a "hormone balancer", acting on the endocrine system by nourishing the pituitary and lessening dramatic fluctuations in hormone levels. I advise the use of Burdock when the need for a metabolic tonic is accompanied by wildly fluctuation moods; a condition unfortunately associated with menstruating women but alive and well (if too oft overlooked) in men, especially when overwork is compounded by lack of exercise and emotional release. This application is especially relevant during stressful transitions in life, be they associated with external stress, metabolic changes, or emotional upheaval. These are often conditions that are dealt with through the use of nervines, but the actions of these herbs will be better manifested if accompanied by the regular use of alterative tonics such as Burdock and Milky Oats. This same combination would prove a very nice base on which to build a restorative tonic for sexual problems and infertility arising from overwork and exhaustion.

Matthew Wood states that Burdock helps to stabilize blood sugar by reducing the amount of sugar picked up in the intestines. Stephen Buhner, in his (extremely cool) Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, states that the inulin contained in the roots "exert a beneficial effect on normalizing blood sugar levels".

Burdock also has been said to be of value in treating prolapsed of the uterus associated with childbirth. Though I have no firsthand experience with this, a tincture or tea of the root being taken in small frequent doses is ideal, according to Michael Moore. He also notes the use of Burdock seed in treating preeclampsia, water retention during pregnancy accompanied by elevated blood pressure and poor kidney function... I used a recipe with Burdock seed as one of the main ingredients to address this, but to no avail; the preeclampsia on out… c'est la vie.

Running throughout the physical actions brought about by the use of Burdock are the themes of normalization and the restoration of balance. Burdock does not force its virtues upon us; it simply aids us in recovering our own when we lose touch with our well being and fall into imbalance. It understands the importance of slow and subtle resolve and the benefits of gentle but consistent action. In the wild, Burdock grows on disturbed and injured soil, drawing nutrients from deep within the ground to replenish and heal the disturbed earth. It performs this same healing for us, drawing our own medicines from deep within our being to restore the conditions necessary for healing to occur. By recognizing such themes, we can better understand the use of an herb, and when it is indicated as a remedy for ourselves or another. I have not seen Burdock's true virtue more clearly or beautifully captured than by Matthew Wood, who wrote:

"On a psychological level, Burdock helps us deal with our worries about the unknown... which lurk in the dark woods beyond our control. It seizes upon deep complex issues, penetrates to the core and brings up old memories and new answers. It gives us faith to move ahead on our path, despite the unknown problems that might snare us on our way. It helps the person who is afraid become more hardy, while it brings the hardy wanderer back to his original path. It restores vigor and momentum."

© 2000-2008 jim mcdonald




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