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Comfrey: Use With Care

September 27, 2013

By: Emma Liu

The Permaculture garden at Ithaca College offers a wide variety of different herbs and plants that coexist in a harmonious and natural way.  For my focus group we all chose three different plants from the garden to research their medicinal and nutritional uses and values.  Comfrey, a plant that I had never heard of was one of the plants on my list along with Hardy Kiwi and Lemon Verbena.  I have found Comfrey to be a truly interesting plant both for its historical uses as well as its toxic chemical composition.

I am guessing that, unless you have an herbalist for a parent, you have never heard of or seen Comfrey so I will tell you a little about it.  It is a hollow, cornered and hairy-stemmed plant with hairy, flat, lance shaped leaves.  The hairs on the stem and leaves cause irritation when they come in contact with the skin.  The stem grows to between two and three feet tall with fewer and fewer leaves as the stem lengthens.  The plants blooms in late spring through summer, with flowers that hang in bunches from one side of the plant.  The flowers can be blue, purple, pink, white or creamy yellow.  The plant is indigenous to most of Europe and in the temperate regions of Asia.  It was introduced to America when colonizers first came and has since become naturalized.  It grows along streambeds and in low moist areas such a ditches along roadsides.

Comfrey has been used as an herbal remedy for thousands and thousands of years.  Its name actually comes from a Greek word meaning “to heal”.  Traditionally it has been used to heal broken bones, damaged or torn tissue, bruises, internal bleeding and digestive problems.  It was thought to have magical properties because it was so good at reducing inflammation.  Depending on what is ailing you a different part of the plant is used and prepared.   In ancient Greece people both drank the roots and leaves in a brewed tea form but also applied it to external wounds in the forms of pastes and poultices.  It strikes me as odd that something with so many apparent benefits was not approved for sale in the United States until 2001.  Some Japanese scientist decided to do some research about Comfrey and discovered that in addition to its healing qualities it has some highly toxic components as well.

I was curious about what made this plant so magical and so did a little bit of research to learn about the plant composition.  It turns out there are two compounds in it that have beneficial qualities, Allantoin and Rosmarinic Acid.  If you’re like me and have no idea what that means don’t worry.  The first is a compound that causes rapid cell duplication, which facilitates re-growth of damaged tissue.  The second merely acts as an anti-inflammatory agent; it’s kind of like an herbal icepack.   It sounds kind of magical to me.

Why do good things always come at a price? While Comfrey definitely has its medicinal benefits products come plastered with warning labels.  Comfrey contains these things called Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (Pas) that can be highly toxic, especially to children when ingested.  Just to be tricky it stops internal bleeding and have been used to manage diarrhea.  Unfortunately, Pas also leads to liver damage and the growth of cancerous tumors.  So you have to choose between bleeding internally and having liver failure? No. These concerns arise if you ingest the plant or use topical creams for extended periods of time. Do your own research and be smart about topical use of comfrey to avoid these risks.

Quite a bit of research has gone into discovering the health risks of traditional herbal medicines.  While I believe that this is a good idea I also wonder why in many cases, like that of Comfrey, little to no research has been done to look into the health benefits.  Only relatively recently have alternative medicines and treatments been seriously considered valid practices in the United States.  For some reason herbalism and herbal medicines have become completely separate from “western medicine” in our country.  Personally I believe in the power of herbal medicine.  I also believe that it is important to be educated in the field before self-medicating. I also feel that we have a lot to learn from our herbalist ancestors who survived only with herbal remedies.  Why have western and herbal medicine become so separate and what will it take to establish a connection between the two in the future in our culture?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Renate permalink
    January 13, 2014 10:26 am

    One answer is that herbal medicine can be “made” (grown) and used by the individual with just some education and guidance. Doctors and drug manufacturing companies see no profits in this.

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