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A Plant Alternative to Antihistamines


Butterbur, a plant found in Europe, Asia and in parts of North American, has been used for centuries as an herbal treatment. Only recently, however, have scientists begun to find that it may truly have a place alongside more traditional treatments for asthma and migraines. The most recent findings show that butterbur may be as effective as antihistamines in reducing the symptoms of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever.

The study, published online in August 2005 in Phytotherapy Research, looked at 330 patients who suffered from sporadic hay fever. The research divided the participants into three groups: the first took 8 milligrams of butterbur extract three times a day; the second took 180 milligrams of fexofenadine (Allegra), a common antihistamine, each morning, and the last took only a placebo. At the end of the study, both groups receiving active treatment reported a significant reduction in the nasal congestion and itchy, watery eyes most commonly experienced with hay fever. Most strikingly, there was almost no difference between taking an antihistamine or the butterbur extract, except that some taking the antihistamine did complain of drowsiness.

Since antihistamines and butterbur work in different ways, study author Dr. Andreas Schapowal of the Allergy Clinic in Landquart, Switzerland, feels that combining the two drugs would be effective. However, no study has investigated how butterbur works in combination with any other drug.

A Potpourri of Purposes

Historically, butterbur has been used to treat a wide range of ailments, including asthma, skin infections and even the plague. But doctors have only recently begun to look into the properties of butterbur, as older studies showed the plant to cause cancer in animals. The compound responsible for this toxic effect, pyrrolizidine alkaloid, has since been identified, and newer butterbur supplements are made from only the leaves of a plant (roots contain higher levels of the alkaloid) specially developed to be low in the compound. Now experts say that the drug is safe for use.

The active ingredients in butterbur extracts are petasin and isopetasin. Petasin reduces spasms in smooth muscle and vascular walls, while isopetasin acts on the system that reduces inflammation. Together, the two act as an effective anti-inflammatory drug with potential in treating many ailments. A study published in January 2005 showed that butterbur could help to prevent and reduce migraine symptoms better than a placebo. And a few studies have implied that the extract may be useful in treating asthma. But much more research needs to be done to determine the plant's true effectiveness and long-term safety.

It remains to be seen how butterbur will impact the treatment of other conditions, but some doctors are already convinced of its effectiveness for treating hay fever. "Three randomized, placebo-controlled studies of the butterbur extract, Ze 339, in peer-reviewed journals should convince anybody of the efficacy and safety of the medication in allergic rhinitis," said Schapowal.