Burdock root is the innocuous-looking underground structure of the burdock plant, which is found in many regions around the world. While people in Europe, Korea, and Japan consume it as a vegetable, this plant has also been used as a remedy for various ailments since the Ming Dynasty. Read on to learn about this amazing plant.
Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a plant native to Asia and Europe that has been cultivated as a vegetable for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese medicine uses most of the plant, such as its seeds, long carrot-like roots, and heart-shaped leaves.
Most notably, its potential health benefits have been recorded in The Compendium of Materia Medica from the Ming Dynasty. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s referred to as ‘Niubang.” It is also known as gobō, happy major, beggar’s buttons, thorny burr, and lappa.
Burdock has many potential health benefits that stem from its anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, and microbe-fighting properties.
Almost all parts of the plant are used therapeutically, such as the fruit, roots, seeds, flowers, and leaves.
Its most important compounds are polyphenols, powerful antioxidants, including:
Specifically, lignans (such as arctigenin and arctiin), are responsible for many of the potential benefits of burdock. In particular, arctigenin has anticancer, antiviral, and liver-protective properties.
The method of preparing extracts can change the final concentration of polyphenols. Burdock leaf alcohol extracts that were freeze-dried had the highest percentage of these compounds (followed by oven-drying, drying in the shade, and drying in the sun).
For burdock root tea, roasting increases the concentration of antioxidants.
Burdock roots also contain:
The flavonoids and lignans in burdock root are responsible for many of the plant’s potential effects.
One lignan (arctigenin) is being investigated for its potential to help fight cancer. It is likely involved in triggering cancer cell death, preventing cancer cells from spreading, and stopping their uncontrolled growth.
The same compound may help reduce the severity of hepatitis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease via its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action.
Burdock could also be beneficial in diabetes. It might stimulate insulin production and lower leptin. You may have heard of leptin as the hormone that causes weight loss. Not so fast! Leptin is actually high in people with chronic diseases and obesity, who often become leptin resistant. In such cases, lowering leptin is good.
Burdock root can also be used in cosmetics. It can block the enzyme that breaks down elastin, the protein that gives skin its elasticity. In turn, creams with burdock root might reduce wrinkles and give skin a more youthful appearance.
In animal studies, burdock extract reduced swelling and protected against liver damage. It also reduced inflammation from exposure to cigarette smoke.
Similarly, arctiin, a burdock polyphenol, decreased levels of inflammatory substances (TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, and IL-6) in mice. Arctigenin, the other major polyphenol, reduced inflammation from LPS, a bacterial toxin that can sneak into the blood in people with “leaky gut”.
In summary, the results are promising but the evidence is insufficient to claim that burdock root is anti-inflammatory in humans. More clinical trials on larger populations are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.
Burdock root is thought to lower cholesterol levels. However, in a trial of 40 women, burdock extract only decreased triglycerides, total and LDL cholesterol when combined with exercise. And unfortunately, it also lowered levels of the “good” cholesterol, HDL.
Interestingly, burdock extract was much more effective in animal studies; it lowered LDL, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while increasing HDL.
In a study on quail with clogged arteries, burdock root extracts lowered lipids and protected arteries as well as simvastatin (Zocor), a cholesterol-lowering medication.
In conclusion, burdock’s effect on cholesterol is not clear. The data from animal studies are more encouraging than the findings from human studies. Further clinical research is needed to shed some light on its potential to lower blood cholesterol and prevent clogged arteries.
A topical cream with 1.2% burdock fruit applied twice a day reduced the appearance of wrinkles after 4 weeks in a trial of 75 people.
In cells, arctiin from burdock also increased the production of collagen, which gives skin elasticity. Plus, it reduced inflammatory compounds that can trigger skin aging.
All in all, burdock root seems to stimulate collagen production and reducing inflammation. However, a single clinical trial and a cell-based study cannot be considered conclusive to attest to its effectiveness in humans. Further clinical research is required.
Burdock has traditionally been used to fight acne. In one study with 34 people, a homeopathic burdock remedy improved acne, especially inflammatory-type ones. However, this study was not controlled and more data are needed. Plus, homeopathic remedies are highly diluted and may not contain any active compounds.
A low-quality trial with a high risk of bias is clearly insufficient to claim that burdock root improves acne. Larger, more robust studies are needed to validate its results.
In a clinical trial of 36 people with H. pylori infections, an herbal supplement containing 64% burdock (20 mL, 2x/day) helped heal stomach ulcers and fight the infection.
In rat studies, burdock extracts reduced stomach ulcer size and helped restore the mucus lining.
How does burdock root work to protect the stomach?
One cell-based study hints at its mechanism. In this study, an herbal supplement containing burdock prevented H. pylori bacteria from attaching to stomach cells. This might help the body remove the ulcer-causing bacteria easier and prevent re-infection.
In summary, the results are promising but the evidence is still insufficient to support the use of burdock root to improve ulcers. More clinical trials on larger populations are needed to confirm these preliminary results.
A standardized extract from burdock fruit (GBS-01) is currently being investigated as an anticancer therapy in people with pancreatic cancer who fail to respond to gemcitabine. A phase I pilot trial on 15 people found confirmed partial response in 1 patient and stable disease in 4.
In a mouse study, a burdock compound (called L-asparagine) stopped cancer cells from spreading and enhanced the activity of a chemotherapy medication (cyclophosphane).
Another burdock compound, arctigenin, stopped tumor growth by up to 70% in mice. This effect was even stronger if arctigenin was given earlier. Arctigenin also suppressed genes that cancer cells normally activate.
In a cell-based study, arctigenin enhanced the susceptibility of cancer cells to cisplatin, a chemotherapy medication.
In other studies, burdock root extracts and active compounds (arctigenin and arctiin) selectively killed cancer cells while sparing healthy cells. The extracts were comparable to doxorubicin, a chemotherapy medication, at killing cancer cells and preventing rapid growth.
All in all, the existing evidence is insufficient to confirm the therapeutic effects of burdock root in anticancer therapy, but warrants the development of further clinical trials to investigate it.
In a study of 510 women with breast cancer, low doses (13-74 mL/day) of Essiac, an herbal supplement containing burdock, did not improve mood states. It even negatively affected the patients’ physical well-being and patient-doctor relationship.
Essiac is a multi-herbal preparation, and it’s hard to pinpoint which herbs triggered the detrimental effect.
On the other hand, burdock root alone might have beneficial effects on mood. In one study, its active compound arctigenin reduced depressive and anxious behavior in mice under constant mild stress.
Until more studies are out, the data on this plant’s effect on depression remains mixed.
No clinical evidence supports the use of burdock root for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
In diabetic mice, burdock root extract reduced blood sugar and markers of liver damage (alkaline phosphatase). Intriguingly, at high doses, it also increased insulin levels. And at even higher doses, it increased leptin levels, which were low in mice with diabetes.
Why is leptin so important?
Leptin is the appetite and fat storage hormone. In people with type 1 diabetes (or advanced type 2 diabetes) and impaired insulin production, leptin levels are typically low. Insulin therapy in these patients can increase leptin.
Conversely, leptin levels are usually high in people with type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance; in this case, the body can become unresponsive to leptin despite the high levels, which leads to leptin resistance.
Having this in mind, it makes sense that burdock fruit extract also decreased high leptin levels in diabetic mice in another study. Its effect was comparable to that of metformin (Glucophage), a diabetes medication.
To sum it up, burdock normalized leptin levels to those of the healthy mice in both mentioned studies.
Similarly, in other animal studies, extracts of burdock root and nettle leaves lowered blood sugar levels. The extracts lowered HbA1c levels as effectively as metformin.
Plus, burdock’s polyphenols called lignans decreased blood sugar, HbA1c, and body weight in a mouse study.
In animals, burdock root extract protected the liver against damage from acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose, toxic chemicals, and the heavy metal cadmium.
Similarly, arctigenin, a compound found in burdock, protected against liver damage from hepatitis.
In summary, burdock root may protect against liver damage by reducing inflammation and boosting antioxidants. However, clinical trials are needed to see if this benefit translates to humans.
A sugar molecule found in burdock (ALP1) enhanced antioxidant defense in mice and decreased levels of malondialdehyde – a marker of oxidative cell damage – in the blood and liver.
To get to the bottom of its antioxidant potential, we’ll zoom into its action in cells.
In one cell study, burdock root extracts protected brain cells from oxidative damage; they prevented reactive oxygen species from forming and increased levels of superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase – crucial free-radical-scavenging enzymes.
Similarly, in another cell study, extracts also protected brain cells from oxidative stress from glutamate.
Burdock extract is a potent antioxidant, with stronger antioxidant activity than vitamin C. Unfortunately, this effect has not yet been tested in human studies.
Diabetes and other chronic diseases can cause erectile dysfunction or infertility. Since proper sugar breakdown is required for sperm production, diabetes can decrease sperm count and quality.
Burdock root extract improved sperm survival in diabetic mice. In healthy mice, it improved sperm count and markers of fertility (LH, FSH, and testosterone).
Extremely high doses (600 and 1,200 mg/kg) of burdock root improved impotence and increased testosterone levels in male rats. Such megadoses have never been tested in humans.
So although burdock root improved infertility and impotence in animals, human trials are needed.
In two studies, burdock root extract decreased the bodyweight of rats fed a high-fat diet.
Enzymes that control the production of fat molecules (fatty acid synthase and acetyl-coenzyme A carboxylase) are important players in obesity and weight management. Burdock root extract blocks these enzymes, meaning it can potentially be used as a weight-loss herb.
Preliminary research suggests that burdock root has weight-loss potential, but human studies are needed to confirm it.
In an animal study, burdock suppressed an extreme allergic response called anaphylaxis.
Similarly, in a cell study, an active compound in burdock (oleamide) reduced levels of histamine and other inflammatory compounds (TNF-alpha and IL-4).
It is too early to say if burdock root can help alleviate allergies.
High blood pressure and heart disease can cause abnormal enlargement of the heart, which can lead to heart failure if left unaddressed. Arctiin, one of the main active components of burdock, might be a heart-healthy compound. In mice, it improved heart function and prevented heart enlargement.
Overactivity of osteoclasts, the cells that break down bones, can lead to bone loss and osteoporosis. In a study with mice, arctigenin from burdock root reduced the number of osteoclasts and prevented their activity .
In mice, arctigenin from burdock root stopped the production of beta-amyloid, a protein that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, possibly preventing memory loss and reducing the formation of harmful plaques.
Burdock root extracts were effective against numerous bacteria and fungi in test tubes. For example, they killed bacteria that cause tooth decay and cavities.
Its extracts can also disrupt microbial biofilms – sticky layers of bacteria that are very difficult to eliminate, especially in hospitals. It destroyed the biofilms of hospital-acquired superbugs (such as Klebsiella pneumoniae and Proteus mirabilis) and of E. coli, a common cause of UTIs and food poisoning.
Burdock root could also kill the Candida albicans yeast, although only in test tubes.
Note, however, that none of these results have been replicated in humans or even in animals. More studies are needed to determine if burdock root may be of any use to fight the infections caused by these microorganisms.
Studies mention burdock root as an ingredient in natural cosmetics, shampoos, and hair care products. It is commonly used to prevent baldness and improve hair quality and growth. But despite the widespread claims, there are little to no data to support this benefit.
Only one cell-based study hints at this possibility.
One theory poses that hair loss may, in part, be caused by reactive oxygen species, which attack and kill hair cells. In a test tube, arctiin protected hair cells against the effects of reactive oxygen species. Burdock root also contains anti-inflammatory substances, vitamins, and minerals, which may contribute to hair health.
Burdock supplements come in a variety of forms. The commercially available preparations are all made with the plant’s roots:
Both the roots and seeds of the plant contain beneficial compounds and antioxidants (such as polyphenols and lignans).
Because burdock root is not approved by the FDA for any condition, there is no official dose. Additionally, the dosage information is limited by the shortage of clinical studies. Users and supplement manufacturers have established unofficial doses based on trial and error. Discuss with your doctor if burdock root may be useful as a complementary approach in your case and which dose you should take.
Tea was made with 2 g of burdock root/cup and consumed 3x/day.
For liquid burdock root extract, a dose of 100 mL/day was used.
Another herbal supplement, Burdock Complex (burdock, angelica, gromwell, and sesame oil) was dosed at 20 mL, 2x/day.
For GBS‐01, a burdock fruit extract, high doses of up to 12 g/day are safe, with minimal side effects.
A topical cream with 1.2% burdock was used 2x/day to improve the appearance of wrinkles.
Keep in mind that the safety profile of burdock root is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is not a definite one and you should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.
Although burdock is generally safe, some people can develop an allergic reaction to it, especially when applied to the skin. Do a skin patch test first and wait for at least 24 hours before applying it to your skin or hair in larger amounts.
Orally, high doses of purified arctigenin (12 mg/kg), a polyphenol found in burdock root, were toxic in animals and worsened kidney injury.
Burdock roots are very similar in appearance to the roots of poisonous plants in the genus Datura. Many plants in the Datura genus contain atropine and scopolamine (toxic substances), which can be fatal if consumed.
Although there are some case reports of commercial burdock root tea poisoning, burdock does not contain the poisonous atropine-like alkaloid compounds. Thus, the tea may have been contaminated during the production process. Make sure to buy burdock root from a reputable source.
Many of the studies were conducted only on animals. More human trials are needed to confirm the findings.