The common burdock, that well-known source of annoying burrs matted in dogs' fur, is also a medicinal herb of considerable reputation. Called gobo in Japan, burdock root is said to be a food that provides deep strengthening to the immune system. In ancient China and India, herbalists used it in the treatment of respiratory infections, abscesses, and joint pain. European physicians of the Middle Ages and later used it to treat cancerous tumors, skin conditions, venereal disease, and bladder and kidney problems.
Burdock was a primary ingredient in the famous (or infamous) Hoxsey cancer treatment. Harry Hoxsey was a former coal miner who parlayed a traditional family remedy for cancer into the largest privately owned cancer treatment center in the world, with branches in 17 states. (It was shut down in the 1950s by the FDA. Harry Hoxsey himself subsequently died of cancer.) Other herbs in his formula included red clover, poke, prickly ash, bloodroot, and barberry. Burdock is also found in the famous herbal cancer remedy Essiac.
Despite this historical enthusiasm, there is no significant evidence that burdock is an effective treatment for cancer or any other illness.
Burdock is widely recommended for the relief of dry, scaly skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. It is also used for treating acne. It can be taken internally as well as applied directly to the skin. Burdock is sometimes recommended for rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, there is as yet no real scientific evidence for any of these uses.
A typical dosage of burdock is 1 to 2 g of powdered dry root 3 times per day.
As a food commonly eaten in Japan (it is often found in sukiyaki), burdock root is believed to be safe. However, in 1978, the Journal of the American Medical Association caused a brief scare by publishing a report of burdock poisoning. Subsequent investigation showed that the herbal product involved was actually contaminated with the poisonous chemical atropine from an unknown source.1 Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease is not established.
1. Bryson PD, Watanabe AS, Rumack BH, et al. Burdock root tea poisoning. Case report involving a commercial preparation. JAMA. 1978; 239:2157.
2. Bever BO, Zahnd GR. Plants with oral hypoglycaemic action. Q J Crude Drug Res. 1979;17:139–196.
3. Farnsworth NR, Segelman AB. Hypoglycemic plants. Tile Till. 1971;57:52–56.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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