Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which is also known as “European butterbur” in North America, is a perennial herbal shrub that belongs to the Asteraceae family. It can be found growing along rivers, ditches and marshy areas in Asia, Europe and parts of North America.1 Its name was derived from its large leaves, which were traditionally used as a wrapper for butter blocks during warm weather.2
The European butterbur plant is also known as bog rhubarb, sweet colt’s foot, petasites and umbrella plant. It has lilac-pink flowers and leaves that can grow and broaden to as much as 3 feet in diameter.3 Another butterbur variant grows in Japan, known as Fuki or Petasites japonicus. It can be distinguished through its round, dark-green leaves and fat petioles, and thrives in moist, fertile or heavy clay soil.4
Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, described butterbur’s medicinal use in 65 A.D.5 The plant was then used against the bubonic plague and for easing fever in the Middle Ages.6 Later on, butterbur was known to help ease muscle spasm after a 1951 study published in the Naunyn-Schmiedeberg’s Archives of Experimental Pathology and Pharmacology journal demonstrated its antispasmodic properties.7
Today, butterbur — particularly its roots, leaves and bulbs — is known as an alternative remedy for various conditions. Keep reading to learn more about the merits of this herb.
Petasin, or butterbur extract, is known to help ease headaches and migraine, allergies and spasms of the urogenital and gastrointestinal tract with its anti-inflammatory and spasmolytic properties.8 Butterbur products are usually made with butterbur extract taken from its roots and leaves.9
Butterbur may have culinary uses, too. In Japan, Fuki is added to pickles and stir-fry recipes along with miso,10 a fermented soybean paste used as flavoring in salads, sauces, vegetable dishes and more.11 Fuki stalks have to be rubbed with salt to remove its natural bitterness before it is boiled for several minutes and then plunged into cold water.12
However, unlike other herbs such as rosemary, thyme or parsley, the butterbur herb is not supposed to be eaten raw on a long-term basis because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs).13 PAs are plant toxins mostly found in medicinal herbs,14 and prolonged exposure to these hepatotoxic chemicals may potentially damage the liver, lungs and blood circulation, and may even lead to cancer.15
As mentioned above, butterbur was historically used to help ward off the plague and to ease fever.16 Now studies have found that it may be helpful for a number of other conditions, such as:
• Migraines and headaches — A 2005 study has found that Petasites extract from butterbur root could significantly reduce migraine attacks, even among children and teenagers, with only a low rate of burping as its side effect.17 In another study on butterbur for migraines, butterbur had the same medicinal effect as music therapy among school-aged participants.18
On the other hand, a study on the efficacy of butterbur for headaches has proven its prophylactic effect through the anti-inflammatory properties present in the extract.19
• Allergic rhinitis — Allergic rhinitis or hay fever is commonly determined by symptoms such as sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, watery eyes, excessive fatigue and coughing. To help relieve these symptoms, butterbur may be used as an effective herbal treatment, with a study from the Archives of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery supporting the efficacy and safety of butterbur extract. The researchers noted:20
“The effects of Butterbur Ze339 (carbon dioxide extract from Petasites leaves, standardized to 8 mg petasins per tablet) on seasonal allergic rhinitis have been shown to be significant under methodologically controlled study conditions. In that evaluation of butterbur, we found the treatment advantageous relative to a commonly used antihistamine (cetirizine hydrochloride).”
Another study found that butterbur for allergies works similarly as antihistamine drugs. Only small amounts of allergy-producing substances were found in the participants’ bodies after five days of taking butterbur tablets.21
• Asthma — Coralberry is an ornamental plant containing compounds that help relieve bronchial muscle contraction as experienced by asthmatics. Similar to coralberry, butterbur is a natural antihistamine that helps suppress the symptoms of asthma.
Historically, butterbur was also known in ancient Greece as a prophylaxis for its anti-inflammatory and leukotriene inhibitory properties.22 In a 2004 study involving 64 adults and 16 children and adolescents, it was proven to be effective in lessening asthma attacks complementary to their normal asthma medications.23 However, if you are allergic to plants from the ragweed family, I advise you not to take or use butterbur products.
• Smooth muscle spasm — Smooth muscle spasm may be a symptom of a number of conditions, such as dehydration, constipation, gastritis and gastroenteritis. In a study, researchers have found that isopetasin and oxopetasan esters in Petasites hybridus have medicinal properties to help suppress these spasms.24 An animal study also found that ethanolic extract in Petasites hybridus may help shrink the size of stomach ulcers.25
• Somatoform disorders — Somatic symptom disorder (SSD) often causes stress and anxiety with or without physical explanation. In a 2009 Pythotherapy Research study, it was found that herbal drugs with butterbur root may be an effective treatment for people with somatoform disorders on a short-term basis.26
• Obesity — A study involving obesity-prone mice found that the methanol extract containing antioxidants such as polyphenols, glycosides or petaslignolide from butterbur stabilizes cholesterol levels, making it a helpful ingredient in combating obesity and cardiovascular disease as well.27
• Common cold — A study in Japan demonstrated Japanese butterbur’s expectorant properties, which can help eliminate an allergic reaction due to cedar pollen dispersal.28
• Alzheimer’s disease — A recent study found that Petasites japonicus leaves can effectively mitigate the death of neuronal cell, a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.29
• Oxidative stress — Another study published in 2005 highlighted butterbur’s neuroprotective effect in mice. The combination of rough aster or Eurybia radula and butterbur extract was able to maintain the balance of free radicals and antioxidants in the mice’s brains.30
Pets, most especially dogs and cats, can also be susceptible to seasonal allergies. Their symptoms are often characterized by skin irritation and inflammation. Here are some signs of allergy in pets:31
- Excessive scratching
- Hair loss
- Excessive licking of feet
- Open sores
- Rubbing of body against furniture or carpet
- Excessive head shaking
One way of mitigating a pet’s allergy is through using natural antihistamines. Butterbur may help reduce the symptoms of seasonal allergies for pets because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Butterbur supplements, tinctures and tea are available and are made from the roots, leaves and stems of the plant. Make sure that you choose capsules that are labeled PA-free to help avoid liver damage.32 If you intend to use butterbur products, always seek your health care provider’s advice first.
With leaves that can spread by as much as 3 feet in diameter, space may become a problem if you plan to grow butterbur in your garden. As an invasive rhizome, it has a tendency to grow horizontally underground, so it’s best to put up a fence to control it. Select a spacious area for butterbur plants to expand freely.
Butterbur could grow in any type of soil, as long as it is damp. These plants don’t need too much sunlight, as it will dry out the leaves. When this happens, wait for the plant to return to its normal appearance under partial or full shade.
To prevent slugs from invading butterbur plants, place a bowl of beer near the plant, which will attract and drown these pests. You can also lay a board near the plant where the slugs would rather settle.33
Studies highlighted butterbur’s anti-inflammatory properties that can help ease symptoms of migraine and antispasmodic properties that help relieve muscle spasms, especially in the gastrointestinal tract.34
Though it is considered an alternative remedy to migraine and headache disorders alongside magnesium, riboflavin, melatonin and feverfew,35 more evidence regarding butterbur’s efficacy needs to be presented. Some studies made use of root extract while some have used its leaf extract, leaving a discrepancy on the formulations used, since butterbur roots contain more alkaloids than its leaves.36
As there is not enough data on the effectiveness of butterbur in chronic cough, insomnia, anxiety, wounds, pain and urinary tract spasms, I do not advise taking butterbur products for these conditions.37
If you are allergic to plants like ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should avoid the use or intake of butterbur as it also comes from the Compositae family.38 Be sure to visit a doctor first and discuss your intention of using butterbur supplements or products to avoid allergy symptoms such as itching, swelling of throat and hives.
There are not many supporting studies on the effects of butterbur on pregnant or breastfeeding women, so I don’t advise taking or using butterbur products if you fall under these groups.39
Raw, unprocessed butterbur must be avoided because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), as mentioned above. Other butterbur side effects include:40,41,42,43,44
- Itchy eyes
- Liver-related issues
- Discoloration of stool
- Difficulty in breathing
You should also be aware that taking butterbur with the following drugs45 may trigger a reaction:
- Morphine hydrochloride
Though a number of studies have concluded that butterbur may be helpful in combating symptoms of asthma and seasonal allergies, its efficacy during long-term use still hasn’t been determined due to lack of data. Published studies done on both humans and animals made use of butterbur extract for treatments and lasted up to 16 weeks only.46 If you intend to use butterbur long-term, it is important to consult your health care provider first.
Q: Where can I buy butterbur?
A: Butterbur products are available in health stores or online, and are sold as supplements, powders, cream and liquid extracts. Before using or taking butterbur products, consult your doctor for assistance.
Q: Is butterbur safe?
A: Some side effects related to butterbur include drowsiness, diarrhea, itchy eyes, difficulty in breathing and allergies. As a member of the Asteraceae/Compositae family along with ragweed, marigold, daisy and chrysanthemum,47 taking or using butterbur products may cause allergic reactions if you are sensitive to these plants.
Also, butterbur extract contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that may be toxic to the liver, so be sure to choose butterbur products that are certified PA-free.48 If you have an existing liver condition, you should not take or use butterbur.49
Q: What is butterbur extract used for?
A: A number of studies suggest that butterbur may be helpful in alleviating conditions such as headache, asthma, allergies, and gastrointestinal diseases.
Q: Is butterbur good for headaches?
A: Yes. Published data suggests that the anti-inflammatory properties of Petasites extract from butterbur may be effective against headaches.
Q: Where does butterbur grow?
A: Butterbur plants are found in marshy areas, typically along rivers and ditches in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia.50 The Japanese variant (Petasites japonicas) can mainly be found in China, Korea and Japan.51
Q: Can butterbur cause diarrhea?
A: Based on a published study, diarrhea is one possible side effect of butterbur intake.52
Q: Does butterbur help with allergies?
A: Yes. Butterbur has antihistamine properties that may help mitigate the symptoms of seasonal allergies.53 But if you are allergic to ragweed, avoid butterbur products as it comes from the same family.
Q: Is butterbur good for migraines?
A: Yes. Butterbur’s anti-inflammatory effects are known to help ease the symptoms brought about by migraine.54