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Treats certain cancers, prevents diabetes

Burdock's name is a combination of bur, for its spiked seed covers — burrs — that grab onto anything that touches them, and dock, Old English for "plant." Many scientists dismiss burdock as useless, but like its seeds, its reputation as an herbal healing agent clings tenaciously because of its subtle tonic benefits and its intriguing potential as a treatment for cancer.

Throughout history, burdock has been recommended for an astonishing number of illnesses. Ancient Chinese physicians used it to treat colds, coughs, tonsillitis, measles, skin infections and snakebite. Traditional European and American herbalists and homeopaths prescribed it for colds, arthritis, gout, stomach problems, fever, canker sores, leprosy, boils, gonorrhea, ringworm and infertility. They also considered it an excellent diuretic, and prescribed it for urinary tract infections, kidney problems and painful urination.

Many of these traditional recommendations still echo through contemporary herb guides. But several herb experts scoff at burdock. Among them is Bernie Olin, Pharm.D., editor of The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, a St. Louis-based newsletter that summarizes scientific research on medicinal herbs. Some therapeutic activity has been associated with burdock, he notes, "but there is little evidence to suggest that it is useful in the treatment of any human disease."

True, burdock is not powerfully therapeutic. But Daniel B. Mowrey, PhD, director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine, insists that it deserves its enduring place in herbal healing because of its value as a tonic — a subtle strengthener with cumulatively helpful effects.

"Burdock's action is mild, but real," Dr. Mowrey explains. "It has antibacterial and antiviral powers, and it reduces blood sugar, which helps prevent diabetes. I recommend using a little every day. And when you're ill, use it in addition to standard therapies."

A Potential Cancer Fighter

And after all is said and done, burdock may one day prove valuable as a cancer fighter. Burdock's use against cancer goes way back. The 12th-century German abbess and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen used burdock to treat cancerous tumors, and down through the centuries it has been used as a tumor treatment in Russia, China, India and the Americas. In the United States, it was an ingredient in the popular but highly controversial Hoxsey Cancer Formula, an alternative therapy marketed from the 1930s to the 1950s by ex-coal-miner Harry Hoxsey.

"Five good foreign studies show intriguing anti-tumor or anti-mutation activity," says Dr. Mowrey. (Most substances that cause genetic mutations also cause cancer.) "Recently," says James A. Duke, PhD, author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, "the National Cancer Institute became interested in burdock as part of its Designer Foods Program, an effort to use biotechnology to introduce cancer-preventive chemicals into common food crops." Duke is a botanist retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Putting the herb to work

To brew a pleasantly sweet-tasting tonic tea, boil one teaspoon of crushed, dried burdock root in three cups of water for 30 minutes. Drink up to three cups a day. Dr. Duke enjoys eating a soup made from the leaf stalks of fresh burdock, which resemble celery when cooked, and taste even better, he says.

Warning: When using commercial preparations, follow the package directions. Of course, cancer requires professional care. If you're being treated for cancer and would like to try burdock in addition to standard therapies, discuss it with your physician. The Toxicology of Botanical Medicines identifies burdock as a uterine stimulant. Pregnant women should not use it.

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