Last week I had a really bad cold — I spent several days in bed with toilet paper stuffed up my nose, praying for the sweet release of death and/or a clear nasal passage. But it actually took me a while to realize I had a cold at first, because before that, my allergies had been out of control (so my hay fever masked the cold symptoms as they began): My eyes were red and itchy, I couldn’t stop sneezing, and I was popping Claritin and squirting nasal spray like they were going out of style. And it turns out I’m not the only one: Allergy season is just worse than usual this year (thanks, climate change). Luckily, I’ve heard that butterbur might be give me some much-needed allergy relief. To learn more, I consulted with two experts.
First of all, what is butterbur? If you’d asked me what “butterbur” was a few weeks ago, I’d probably tell you it was some sort of buttery dairy product, or perhaps likened it to that drink they imbibe in Harry Potter. But Dr. Maureen George, an associate professor at Columbia University School of Nursing and council member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, explained to me that butterbur is actually a marshy plant that got its bizarre name back in the day because people used to wrap butter up in it to prevent the butter from going bad. It’s long been known for having medicinal properties — in the 1700s, it was used as a treatment for the plague, go figure — and now it’s believed to help with asthma, skin wounds, alleviating migraines, and hay fever, according to registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin.
So, does it really help with allergies? If you remember, a couple of weeks ago, I looked into whether the nettle tea I’d been seeing all over Instagram can actually help with allergy relief. Both Dr. George and Zeitlin informed me at the time that, no, nettle tea pretty much just makes your allergies worse. But as it turns out, butterbur has actually been scientifically shown to offer allergy relief — but mostly just in high-quality, placebo-controlled studies out of Europe at this point. According to Dr. George, the plant was compared to prescription antihistamines (e.g. Zyrtec) in three studies. Butterbur was found to be no better than a prescription antihistamine — but also just as effective as those drugs. “It’s interesting to see that if you compare it to itself, a placebo, or head-to-head with an antihistamine, it’s as good as a prescription antihistamine, without having to take a prescription antihistamine,” Dr. George said.
But how does it work? Well, the science is still out on how exactly butterbur works, according to Dr. George. That’s mostly because there still haven’t been that many studies on the plant at this point. However, the current theory is that butterbur is an inflammatory mediator that turns off the histamine release in your cells — just like a prescription antihistamine does. “It’s an active area of investigation,” Dr. George added.
Are there any safety concerns? Unfortunately, yes. The biggest thing to know about butterbur is that it’s in the same family as daisies and ragweed — so if you’re allergic to ragweed (like I am), this plant will only make your allergies worse, Dr. George told me (ugh). The doctor added that anyone considering taking butterbur should go to their physician first to see if they are also allergic to ragweed. On top of that, you need to be careful when you take butterbur, because the unprocessed plant contains chemicals — Pyrrolizidine alkaloids — that can actually cause liver problems, according to Zeitlin. So you want to make sure you aren’t consuming the entire plant or taking it in tea form — instead, you need to stick to just the roots, leaves, and stems, preferably in PA-free capsules, Dr. George noted. “Never buy it dried in bulk and drink it like a tea,” the doctor added.
How should I take butterbur? According to Dr. George, it’s recommended that people take supplements of either the root stem or the leaf (which you can usually find at a drugstore). If you’re taking butterbur leaf, you can have 8 milligrams three times a day, and if you’re taking the root extract, you should have 50 milligrams two times a day. She said it will basically give you the same results as an antihistamine, but without any sedative effects.