Medical Attributes of Arctium sp. – Burdock

by Chrissy Bergey and Shivani Patel
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA

July 2013

Arctium is a genus of plants commonly referred to as burdock that is classified in the Asteraceae (Aster) family (Newcomb 1977; Kemper 1999).  Other common names for burdock include arctii, beggar’s buttons, burr, cocklebuttons, gobo, hurrburr, sticky buttons, and ngau pong (Kemper 1999; Stephens 2012).  The species of the genus Arctium are coarse weeds commonly found growing in waste areas with well-drained soils rich in humus (Newcomb 1977; Foster and Duke 2000; Stephens 2012).  Burdock is indigenous to Europe and Northern Asia and grows wild throughout the United States due to its introduction by early settlers (Kemper 1999; Stephens 2012).  Taxonomists recognize two species of burdock, Arctium lappa (great burdock) and Arctium minus (common burdock) (Stephens 2012).  Both have similar physical appearances.  They have roots that average two feet long, toothed, egg-shaped leaves, and reddish purple thistle-like flowers in fruit producing burrs that readily attach to fur and fabric (Newcomb 1977; Foster and Duke 2000; Stephens 2012).

Burdock, especially the species A. lappa, is a popular medicinal plant in folk medicine used to treat a variety of ailments and is commonly eaten as a vegetable in Japan (Kemper 1999; Kratsova & Khasanov 2011).  Burdock has been used therapeutically in Europe, North America, and Asia for hundreds of years to treat gout, rheumatism, dermatologic conditions, diabetes, and as a diuretic and pathogenic agent (Kemper 1999; Azizov, et. al. 2011; Chan, et. al. 2011).  Buddhist monks in Japan used the root to treat such ailments as constipation and mercury poisoning and the leaves externally to heal rashes and burns (Anonymous 2012).  In Ayurvedic medicine, burdock root is made into a tea and used to treat upper respiratory infections and pneumonia (Kemper 1999).  Native Americans employed burdock for its blood purifying abilities, as a kidney tonic, to increase mental concentration, and as an herbal remedy for women in labor (Kemper 1999; Lewis 2003; Anonymous 2012).  A. lappa has also been historically used to treat hair loss (Kemper 1999; Anonymous 2012).  In current western cultures, burdock is used both internally and externally for many conditions of the skin, such as acne, boils, abscesses, and eczema, for situations of chronic inflammation, such as rheumatism, arthritis, and gout, as an antimicrobial, and as a treatment for cancer, stomach ulcers, urinary tract infections, premenstrual symptoms, and HIV (Kemper 1999; Wua, et. al. 2010; Anonymous 2012). 

Such a broad spectrum of therapeutic activity for burdock is due to its chemical composition that includes essential oils, phenolic compounds (lignans, flavonoids, tanning agents), organic acids, alkaloids, and trace elements (Kravtsova & Khasanov 2011).  The lignin arctiin (the glucoside of arctigenin) is unique to the Aster family (including A. lappa), displays an anti-proliferative effect by inhibiting cell division, and may have a protective effect on carcinogenesis induced by 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP), particularly in the mammary gland during the oncogenic promotion period (Lewis 2003; Matsuzaki et al 2008 ).  Lignans are also known to exhibit antibacterial activity, allowing burdock to be useful in treating Helicobacter pylori associated with stomach ulcers (Kravtsova & Khasanov 2011; Wua, et. al. 2010).  The trace elements Cu, Zn, Na, K, Mn, Pb, Cd, Fe, and Mg exhibit an overall positive physiological effect and are important for burdock’s use in treating diabetes.  A principally functional active compound in burdock is inulin, which is known to have a favorable effect by reducing the sugar level in blood after meals (Azizov, et. al. 2012).  Additional active components of the burdock plant include pectins, minor fumaric, succinic, and malic containing chlorogenic acids not found in nature, and caffeoylquinic acids.  The latter are considered valuable for their antioxidant properties (Maruta 1995; Mkrtchian, et. al. 1998; Ferracane, et. al. 2010; Jaiswal & Kuhnert 2010; Liu 2012).

A. lappa has traditionally been used for its anti-inflammatory effects (Knipping, et. al. 2008). Burdock extract reduced release of inflammatory mediators in vitro, and in later trials, acute skin responses in mice were inhibited (Knipping, et. al. 2008). Burdock also decreased edema in the rat-paw model of carageenan-induced inflammation (Kemper 1999).

Burdock is also used to treat gastrointestinal ulcers. Ethanolic extract reduced free radical generation and increased scavenging of free radicals in vitro, ultimately revealing that burdock root extract in ethanol promotes regeneration of gastric mucosa in vivo in rats (da Silva, et. al. 2013). 

In vivo and in vitro studies also indicate that burdock has hepatoprotective and antioxidant effects. In mice, burdock was found to repress serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase (SGOT) and serum glutamic pyruvic transaminase (SGPT) liver enzyme elevations induced by carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), thus alleviating the severity of liver damage (Lin, et. al. 2000). Water extracts of burdock showed inhibitory effects on lipid peroxidation of rat liver homogenate in vitro, indicating burdock’s use as a primary antioxidant (Duh 1998).

Burdock has also been used as an antimicrobial and antineoplastic. Burdock roots demonstrated activity in vitro against several gram-negative bacteria and HIV, and they additionally showed cytostatic activity against certain cancer cell lines (Kemper 1999).  Although there are many in vivo and in vitro trials involving burdock, currently, there are no reported clinical trials associated with A. lappa.

Adverse reactions regarding burdock include redness, contact dermatitis, and in severe cases, anaphylactic shock (Rodriguez, et. al. 1995; Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 2003; Sasaki, et. al. 2003).  Atropine-like poisoning and other anticholinergic-type poisonings after drinking tea made from burdock have been reported (Kemper 1999).  The lignin arctiin in burdock may be weakly carcinogenic to the liver and pancreas (Lewis 2003).  Burdock is known to interfere with hypoglycemic therapy in diabetic mice (Kemper 1999). 

Overall, the medicinal value of burdock, although broad, has been supported through in vitro and in vivo studies with few reported adverse side effects or interactions.  Continued research, especially clinical trials, is needed to further understand the full medicinal potential of Arctium sp.  


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This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2013. Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. ( The information contained herein is based on published sources, and is made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers associated with the plant species in question.

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