Butterbur: Relieve the Pain of Migraines With This
It’s an herb you might be just as likely to see in dramatic historical recreations like Colonial Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation as in your local health-food store.
Back in our country’s early days, settlers used the leaves of this common plant to wrap up freshly churned butter, keeping the food product cool during warm summer months.
In the age of refrigeration, though, its reputation is more medicinal than culinary.
In fact, supplements of the herb are highly valued for their ability to prevent and treat two very different health concerns: migraine headaches and hay fever.
The science behind these uses is solid – but this herb can be potentially harmful if you don’t choose the right product.
A Versatile Remedy…
Native to Europe, Northern Asia, and North America, butterbur grows in meadows, marshes, and ditches.
The plant may get its name from those Colonial housewives, who relied on its leaves to keep dairy products from melting. But butterbur has a long history of use as a medicinal herb, too.
For more than 2,000 years, herbalists have revered butterbur for its versatility. The Greek physician Dioscurides used topical preparations of the herb to treat skin ulcers and wounds, while people in the Middle Ages depended on it to alleviate fevers, infections, coughs, congestion, and asthma.
In modern times, butterbur has gained popularity as a natural approach to painful migraine headaches and seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever and allergic rhinitis.
But these uses aren’t just based on myths or legends. Instead, they stem from real scientific fact.
See, butterbur is rich in petasin and isopetasin, substances that have been shown to relax smooth muscles and blood vessels and decrease levels of histamine, a chemical released during allergic reactions. They also appear to inhibit lipoygenase activity, as well as COX-2 and PGE2 – all signs that butterbur acts as an anti-inflammatory.1,2,3
These effects aren’t limited to the lab, however. The herb shows real promise for certain health problems.
Natural Pain Prevention…
There’s good evidence that butterbur can help prevent migraine headaches, possibly because it helps ease inflammation and relax constricted blood vessels in the head.
For example, in one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 60 adults with migraines took either 50 mg of butterbur extract or a placebo pill twice a day for 12 weeks.
At the end of the study, researchers found that people who took butterbur had their migraine attacks reduced by up to 52 percent. Plus, the number of patients that required acute pain medication to treat their migraines was reduced by more than half in the group who took butterbur.4
Another study that took place at medical centers in both the United States and Germany looked at the effects of either twice daily 50 mg or 75 mg of butterbur extract or a placebo in 245 people with migraines. After three months, the incidence of migraines was reduced by 58 percent in people who took 75 mg of butterbur twice a day, compared to just 28 percent in those who took a placebo.5
Butterbur may prove useful for younger migraine patients, too. In one study of 29 children and 79 adolescents, butterbur (in doses ranging between 25 mg to 150 mg daily, depending on age) appeared to decrease the frequency of migraine attacks by at least 50 percent.6
Nothing to Sneeze At…
Research also suggests that butterbur extract may help relieve the itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing associated with seasonal allergies. A Swiss study of 125 hay fever patients found that the herb was just as effective as a popular non-drowsy antihistamine drug at reducing symptoms.7
Smaller studies of butterbur have found similar effects in nasal allergy sufferers.8,9 For instance, a trial of 20 people with seasonal allergies found that butterbur appeared to protect against an allergy to grass pollen.10
It’s possible that butterbur works by decreasing levels of histamine and other substances that the body releases when we encounter an allergen.
Best Bets for Butterbur…
Butterbur certainly seems like an impressive approach to both migraines and allergic rhinitis – and a safe alternative to medications.
Indeed, butterbur is generally well-tolerated, although side effects can include belching, gastrointestinal problems, and fatigue.
A bigger concern is that some butterbur products may contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), substances that are hepatotoxic, pneumotoxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic. That means that they can damage the liver, lungs, and circulatory system, and may even possibly cause cancer.1,2,3
If you choose to take butterbur – and if you suffer from migraines or nasal allergies, you should certainly consider it – you’ll need to take care when shopping for supplements.
Although the herb is available in tablets, teas, and capsules, your best bet for migraines is to choose a product that’s made from the rhizomes of the plant, standardized to 15 percent petasin and isopetasin, and guaranteed to be PA-free. Petadolex, used in many studies of the herb, is one such product. Most experts recommend taking 50 mg to 100 mg of Petadolex twice a day to help stave off migraines.
For people with hay fever and other nasal allergies, take an extract of butterbur leaf, standardized to 8 mg of petasin, three or four times a day. Or you can try 50 mg twice a day of a whole butterbur root extract instead. The products used in most studies of hay fever, Tesalin and Petaforce, are also free of PAs.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
4Diener HC, Rahlfs VW et al. The first placebo-controlled trial of a special butterbur root extract for the prevention of migraine: reanalysis of efficacy criteria. Eur Neurol. 2004; 51(2):89-97. Epub 2004 Jan 28.
5Lipton RB, Göbel H et al. Petasites hybridus root (butterbur) is an effective preventive treatment for migraine. Neurology. 2004 Dec 28;63(12):2240-4.
6Oelkers-Ax R, Leins A,et al. Butterbur root extract and music therapy in the prevention of childhood migraine: an explorative study. Eur J Pain. 2008 Apr;12(3):301-13. Epub 2007 Jul 30.
7Schapowal A; Study Group. Treating intermittent allergic rhinitis: a prospective, randomized, placebo and antihistamine-controlled study of Butterbur extract Ze 339.Phytother Res. 2005 Jun;19(6):530-7.
8Schapowal A; Petasites Study Group. Butterbur Ze339 for the treatment of intermittent allergic rhinitis: dose-dependent efficacy in a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2004 Dec;130(12):1381-6.
9Gray RD, Haggart K et al. Effects of butterbur treatment in intermittent allergic rhinitis: a placebo-controlled evaluation. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2004 Jul;93(1):56-60.
10Lee DK, Carstairs IJ, et al.Butterbur, a herbal remedy, attenuates adenosine monophosphate induced nasal responsiveness in seasonal allergic rhinitis. Clin Exp Allergy. 2003 Jul;33(7):882-6.
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