By Russell Martin
For hay fever sufferers, European clinical studies have demonstrated that butterbur, a flowering herb, can be as effective as the leading allergy drugs Zyrtec® and Allegra®.
This represents a remarkable breakthrough for all allergy patients—they can now be free of the debilitating side effects of traditional antihistamines used to treat allergies, including palpitations, severe drowsiness, and fatigue.
Additional research has identified rosmarinic acid as an aid in normalizing the inflammation and immune response that accompany allergic reactions. Together, these two botanical agents offer great relief for many of the nearly 40 million Americans now suffering from allergic rhinitis (hay fever).
Butterbur: Herbal Help from Europe
Butterbur has a long history of medicinal applications throughout Europe.
As early as the Middle Ages, butterbur root—Petasites hybridus—was used to alleviate infections and fevers. Later, the herb was used in Europe, northern Africa, and Asia to treat coughs, congestion, and asthma. Butterbur’s principal active constituents include petasin and isopetasin, phytochemicals that may reduce spasms in smooth muscle and relax swollen nasal membranes.1 The active ingredients in butterbur inhibit leukotriene synthesis, consistent with butterbur’s anti-spasm and anti-inflammatory properties.2,3
In the last 30 years, a standardized preparation of butterbur has been recognized as an effective treatment for hay fever in Europe, where herbal remedies must undergo rigorous testing before they can be used by the general public. Repeated studies have shown that butterbur (standardized for petasin and isopetasin) dramatically improves breathing and reduces the effects of histamine and nasal congestion, all without side effects. Let’s take a look at some of these remarkable findings.
The first randomized, double-blind study of standardized butterbur extract, reported by Swiss researchers in the British Journal of Medicine in 2002, followed 125 seasonal hay fever sufferers. At four clinics in Switzerland and Germany, 61 patients were treated with one tablet of the butterbur extract (containing 8 mg of petasin) four times a day, and 64 patients were treated with 10 mg of cetirizine (Zyrtec®) taken once daily. All participants had suffered seasonal allergies for two or more consecutive years. In skin testing, all but one of the 125 patients proved to be allergic to pollens, most commonly grass pollens.4
After two weeks of daily treatment, all participants were judged by their physicians to be improved in clinical examinations. All were shown to have been exposed to substantial levels of pollen during the preceding two weeks, through cross-checking the treatment period with the German government’s pollen-count service. What the researchers noted as most significant was that in every category, butterbur scored as well as cetirizine in alleviating symptoms. While drowsiness and fatigue accounted for two thirds of the adverse events reported by patients in the cetirizine group during the treatment period, these side effects were not noted among those taking the butterbur extract.
“We set out to test whether [butterbur’s] clinical effects in seasonal allergic rhinitis (seasonal allergies) were comparable to those of antihistamines as judged separately and blindly by patients and their doctors,” wrote study author Dr. Andreas Schapowal. “The results showed that the effects of the two treatments are similar . . . With regard to safety, butterbur was well tolerated and did not have the sedative effects associated with antihistamines.” 4
In another study conducted in Switzerland, six patients with acute allergic rhinitis received two butterbur tablets three times a day. At the study’s conclusion, the Swiss researchers were impressed by the significantly lower levels of the inflammatory mediators histamine and leukotrienes in the study participants. They also found that the patients’ breathing reached normal parameters by the end of the five-day period. All the people involved in the study reported significant improvement on a quality-of-life questionnaire, where they rated their symptoms as being above average on the first day and well below average at the end of five days of treatment.5
Butterbur’s Effects Comparable to Drugs
One of the leading researchers on the benefits of butterbur, Dr. Schapowal has conducted numerous studies of this herb. His findings enthusiastically endorse butterbur as an effective treatment and a replacement for pharmaceuticals in the management of seasonal allergies. At the end of one of his placebo-controlled trials involving 330 patients, Dr. Schapowal concluded:
“The effects of [standardized butterbur extract] in treating the symptoms of intermittent allergic rhinitis are similar to those of the antihistamine fexofenadine when evaluated blindly by patients and doctors. Butterbur does not exhibit the sedative effects often associated with antihistamines and is well tolerated by patients. Despite being an herbal drug, butterbur has now been subject to a series of well-controlled trials and should be considered as an alternative treatment for [intermittent allergic rhinitis (seasonal allergies)].”7
Dr. Schapowal and his colleagues studied butterbur’s efficacy once more in 2004, comparing treatment with high and low doses of the plant extract to placebo in a double-blind trial. At the end of the two-week period, physicians’ clinical assessments of the response to treatment indicated that those receiving the high and low doses of butterbur improved dramatically compared to those who received placebo. Moreover, the group receiving the higher dose of butterbur extract showed significantly better results than the low-dose group.7
Scottish Study Confirms Butterbur’s Efficacy
At roughly the same time that Dr. Schapowal and his colleagues were studying butterbur’s efficacy compared to Allegra® (fexofenadine) in Switzerland, another research team was evaluating and comparing the two at the University of Dundee in Scotland.
In that trial, 16 patients suffering from symptoms caused by allergic reaction to dust mites received one week of therapy with 100 mg of butterbur daily, 180 mg of fexofenadine (Allegra®) daily, or placebo. The study purposely was conducted outside Scotland’s pollen seasons in order to eliminate potentially confounding environmental allergens.
Following one week of treatment, both objective and subjective measurements showed that butterbur and fexofenadine significantly improved symptoms of rhinitis compared to placebo. Butterbur performed slightly better than fexo-fenadine in a test of the patients’ response to a spray that triggered nasal congestion.
“We were able to demonstrate significant improvement in the total nasal symptom score with both butterbur and fexofenadine compared to placebo,” wrote study author Dr. Daniel K. Lee. “Our results demonstrated that both butterbur and fexofenadine were equally effective, compared to placebo, in attenuating the nasal response to [congestion-provoking] challenge in addition to improving nasal symptoms in patients with perennial allergic rhinitis.”8
These results mirrored those of a previous study by Dr. Lee and his colleagues in which 20 patients shown to be allergic to grass pollens via skin tests were treated with 100 mg of butterbur daily or placebo. In response to the introduction of the congesting nasal spray, patients taking butterbur regained nasal air flow more quickly than did those taking placebo. The study authors noted that their findings suggest that butterbur may be an effective therapeutic for people suffering from seasonal allergic rhinitis.9
Butterbur may have additional applications for people suffering from upper respiratory complications such as asthma. Several studies have looked at the possibility of incorporating butterbur in an asthmatic treatment program. Because people who suffer from allergic rhinitis have a higher incidence of asthma than does the general population, recent studies showing butterbur’s effectiveness in treating that upper-respiratory disorder as well are very encouraging.10 In 2003, Dr. Lee and his associates at the University of Dundee found that patients who treated their asthma with inhaled corticosteroids breathed better when they added 25 mg of butterbur twice daily to their treatment regimen.11
In an open trial at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, 64 adults and 16 children with asthma reported a decrease in the number, duration, and severity of asthma attacks during two months of butterbur therapy compared to baseline. In addition, the participants demonstrated improvements in forced expiratory volume, a measure of the amount of air exhaled in a forced breath. Participants were allowed to use other asthma medications as needed during this two-month trial.12