Nature is full of plants that have the power to benefit your health. Foods can come from a plant’s fruits, like peppers, strawberries or tomatoes. Sometimes, from its leaves, like lettuce or kale. And sometimes, it’s the plant’s roots that are full of vitamins and minerals that fuel our bodies — like carrots, radishes and — lesser known but perhaps similarly nutritious — burdock root.
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In many parts of the United States, burdock grows wildly (translation: as a weed). But in other parts of the world, including Japan and parts of Europe, burdock is cultivated as a food, as well as a medicinal herb. And all over the globe, it’s being ground up and sold as a supplement, extract, tea and powder.
So what can this weed/vegetable/herbal remedy/supplement do for your health?
That all depends on how you’re getting it, says registered dietitian Devon Peart, RD, MHSc.
“Burdock root is safe to eat as a food, and it’s thought to have some pretty good health effects,” Peart explains. “But, as is often the case, it’s a ‘buyer-beware’ situation when it comes to taking it as a supplement. We really don’t know if it retains its health benefits when it’s in processed form. And its safety isn’t well established as a supplement.”
Peart shares some possible health benefits of eating burdock root and why those benefits may not translate when taking burdock root supplements.
Burdock has been used for centuries in traditional medicine practices, particularly for relieving cold and cough symptoms and as a diuretic. Outside of Europe and Asia, you’re most likely to find burdock root at specialty health stores and imported food markets. It can be prepared and eaten similarly to other root vegetables, like carrots or radishes.
And while there’s minimal scientific research on burdock root’s health effects, it does show some promise as a healthy food to include in your diet.
“When it’s eaten, burdock root provides good nutrition as part of a healthy diet,” Peart notes. “But it hasn’t been studied extensively, so it’s not known how much of it you’d need to eat to get long-term health benefits.”
Burdock root is a good source of a type of fiber called inulin. It’s a dietary fiber that aids in digestion.
Like all fiber, inulin can help you feel fuller longer. It may also lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one), helps stabilize your blood sugar and may even reduce your risk of colon cancer.
Inulin is also found in foods like:
Burdock root is a good source of antioxidants, which are chemical compounds that help protect your cells from damage. And as an anti-inflammatory, burdock root may also help reduce your risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and maybe even some cancers.
“Because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, burdock root also has a history of being used as a topical ointment for skin conditions and shows potential as a possible burn treatment,” Peart says.
Perhaps one of burdock root’s most well-known qualities is its use as a diuretic. That means it may help you pee more, which could be helpful for people who retain water, including people with certain heart, lung or kidney conditions.
Herbs like parsley or dandelion are also natural diuretics, as are water-based fruits and veggies, like watermelon, lemons, cucumbers and grapes.
For all its potential health benefits as a food, Peart advises treading carefully when considering burdock root supplements, especially if you’re living with any chronic health conditions.
“A lot people will look at herbal supplements and think, ‘Oh, it’s natural. Nothing to worry about here,’” Peart says. “But that’s absolutely not the case. There are a lot of natural things that are highly unsafe.”
And, really, supplements are — by definition — not natural. They’re highly processed, they may contain added ingredients you don’t want, and they don’t need to undergo any rigorous safety testing or quality control. So, Peart explains, you don’t really know what you’re getting, how much of the active ingredient you’re getting or whether it’s going to have any effect on you — positive or negative.
Think of it like this: Whole foods are kind of like a football team with a really good quarterback. A future Hall of Famer. But the quarterback isn’t likely to be nearly as effective without a strong team. There are linemen who provide protection from the opposing team’s defense. There’s a receiver out on the field to catch the ball. Without those supporting players, the quarterback can’t be as good as they could be.
When you distill burdock root (and other herbs) down into a supplement, it’s like isolating the quarterback from the rest of the team. Supplements take the best properties of a food and try to make them stand on their own. But as Peart further explains, often what makes food beneficial isn’t one single property. It’s the combination that makes the nutrients more powerful.
“There are properties in food that don’t necessarily translate to supplement form,” she continues. “We just can’t mimic the nutrition that comes naturally from whole foods.”
Whether burdock root supplements will be effective or not and whether they can cause harm is a big question mark.
For one, we also don’t know if burdock root supplements really do act as diuretics. So, you may be just paying for a supplement that’s not even giving you the benefits you’re looking for. Not exactly a wise investment.
On the flip side, if burdock root really is a diuretic, and if those properties translate when it’s refined into a supplement … how much can you take before you’re peeing too much and risking dehydration? No one knows.
The same problems arise when thinking about burdock root’s other potential benefits. If it lowers blood sugar, people with diabetes may be risking hypoglycemia. If it helps lower your blood pressure, what’s the effect if you’re also taking blood thinners? And so on.
The bottom line is that eating burdock root is safe as part of a healthy diet. But relying on burdock root supplements probably isn’t going to do what the bottle claims.
But if you do want to try supplements, Peart advises always talking with a healthcare provider, like a primary care physician or a registered dietitian, for their advice. And be sure to discuss any potential side effects or potential for negative interactions with other medications you take.