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Food as Medicine Update: Burdock (Arctium lappa, Asteraceae)

Editor’s note: In this series, HerbalEGram highlights a conventional food and briefly explores its history, traditional uses, nutritional profile, and modern medicinal research. We also feature a nutritious recipe for an easy-to-prepare dish with each article to encourage readers to experience the extensive benefits of these whole foods. With this series, we hope our readers will gain a new appreciation for the foods they see at the supermarket and frequently include in their diets. We would like to acknowledge ABC Chief Science Officer Stefan Gafner, PhD, for his contributions to this project. The original article on burdock was published in January 2018.

By Hannah Baumana and Bethany Diazb

a HerbalGram Associate Editor
b ABC Dietetics Intern (Texas State University, 2017)

OverviewBurdock roots

Burdock (Arctium lappa, Asteraceae), also known as great burdock or gobo in Japanese, is a biennial plant in the sunflower family.1 Burdock can be found along roadsides or streams and in forests, farmlands, and disturbed areas and prefers full sunlight and nitrogen-rich soil. Native to the temperate regions of the Eurasian continent from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, burdock has been naturalized across the world and has a wide history of use in many countries as food and medicine.2

Burdock has a sturdy stalk that can grow 2–10 feet (0.6–3 m) in height with large, coarse, heart-shaped green leaves that can grow up to 12 inches (32 cm) wide from alternating stems.3,4 In its second year of maturity, burdock produces purple-pink flowers in mid-summer to early fall atop the globular bristle heads that are often called burrs.2 These burrs, which contain the fruits (also called seeds), can attach to the fur of animals, allowing the spread and propagation of the plant. The root can reach a depth of approximately two feet and contains the greatest amount of nutrients during the plant’s first year. The root is long, hard, and slender with a carrot-like shape. When the brown outer layer is peeled away, the inside of the root is white and has an earthy, mildly bitter taste.

Historical and Commercial Uses

Burdock has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years in many parts of Europe, China, and Japan. In Japan, burdock root is a common food and is used as a remedy in Japan’s traditional herbal medicine practice known as Kampo.2 As a traditional medicine, burdock is used as a diuretic to increase urination and an alterative to enhance the body’s natural detoxification process.2,5-7 According to a 2018 review, burdock was rated as one of the most common and important species used medicinally in the ethnobotanical dermatology practices of Romania and other Eastern European countries.8

Botanical illustration of the burdock plant by Kawahara KeigaWhen burdock became naturalized in North America, it became a dietary and medicinal ingredient for Indigenous tribes.9 Numerous tribes, including the Iroquois, Cherokee, and Delaware, used burdock root to treat rheumatism and as a “blood cleanser”17 (a term used in some forms of traditional Western herbal medicine to denote an agent that helps promote cardiovascular detoxification). Some tribes also used burdock root to treat skin conditions. Another common use of burdock root among tribes was for the treatment of venereal diseases. The Iroquois ate burdock root as a vegetable, drying and storing the root for colder months. In the 1920s, burdock root became a component of two folk medicine cancer treatment formulas known as the Hoxsey and Essiac formulas.6 In British Columbia, Canada, burdock plant parts are used in ethnoveterinary medicine for rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain, and cancer treatment in animals, including dogs.10

In the Western herbal practice, burdock is used as a nutritive prebiotic that supports healthy skin, moves lymph, and enhances detoxification and elimination functions.6 Burdock root is indicated for skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and cystitis. The root is preferred for chronic skin issues, while the seed is preferred for treating acute skin eruptions such as boils and sties.2,6 Burdock also is used for other conditions such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and anorexia nervosa.11 Because of burdock root’s bittersweet flavor, it is considered an appetite stimulant and support for bowel function.12 Burdock root is most often prepared as a tea, but it can also be made into extracts and tinctures or powdered and encapsulated.

The root of burdock is the main plant part used as both food and medicine, though the young leaves can be eaten in salads or lightly steamed, and burdock seed also has a history of use in topical applications.3,13 Similar to carrots (Daucus carota subsp. sativus, Apiaceae), a biennial plant grown as an annual root crop, burdock is cultivated in Japan as an annual root vegetable and is eaten in soups, stews, salads, and pickles. Burdock is used widely in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM),14 where the seeds are known as niú bàng zi and the root as niú bàng gen.

The concept of the hook-and-loop fastener known as Velcro was inspired by the structure of burdock burrs. The idea came to Swiss inventor George de Mestral in 1941 as he removed the burrs from his dog’s fur after a hunting trip.15 Upon closer examination, he noted that the hooked bracts of the burr easily caught on a variety of surfaces and set out to duplicate the same effect with synthetic materials. He patented his new material in 1955, named it “Velcro” (a portmanteau of velours and crochet, or “velvet” and “hook”), and founded Velcro SA a few years later.

Phytochemicals and Constituents

Burdock root is a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and folate.16,17 Each of these nutrients plays an important part in human metabolism, growth, and development. Potassium is necessary for electrolyte and pH balance, while folate is involved in amino acid metabolism, red blood cell formation, and DNA synthesis.18 Burdock root also contains fiber in the form of inulin, which supports gastrointestinal health and blood sugar regulation.

Burdock root

Inulin is a water-soluble form of fiber that has been studied for its physiological effects on the gut microbiome. Inulin acts as a prebiotic, which allows beneficial microorganisms to flourish in the gut and generate short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids can protect against some inflammatory digestive disorders and lower the rate of cholesterol production. Inulin also lowers the pH of the intestines, which helps prevent the establishment and growth of pathogenic bacteria.19 Research suggests that the diversity of beneficial gut bacteria and the ratio of beneficial microorganisms to pathogenic microorganisms significantly contribute to healthy weight management, support the immune system through the regulation and enhancement of white blood cell activity, and reduce blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

Burdock root contains numerous phytochemicals, such as lignans, triterpenoids, and polyacetylenes.3,11 These constituents and others present in burdock have been shown to promote blood circulation and are linked to antidiabetic properties, such as increasing insulin uptake, which improves glucose tolerance.20 Burdock root also contains caffeic acid and its derivatives chlorogenic acid and cynarin, as well as the flavonoids quercetin, luteolin, and the lignans arctiin and arctigenin, which have demonstrated cytotoxic, anti-inflammatory, and free radical scavenging properties.21-23 Arctigenin is one of the most-studied bioactive compounds in burdock root and has been investigated both in vitro and in animals for its anti-inflammatory benefits and potential anti-tumor properties. It also has been shown to decrease inflammation in humans by inhibiting the gene expression of proteins that regulate white blood cell activity and T-lymphocytes (T-cells).24


Table 1. Selected Compounds Found in Burdock22,25

Compound Type


Plant Part



Luteolin, rutin (leaf only), quercetin

Leaf, root

Antimicrobial, antioxidant, antiproliferative


Arctigenin, arctignan A-E (fruit only), arctiin, diarctigenin, lappaol C

Fruit, root

Anti-inflammatory, blood glucose regulation, cytotoxic

Carboxylic acids

Caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, cynarin

Fruit, leaf, root

Antidiabetic, antioxidant, antiviral, neuroprotective


Oleanolic acid, ursolic acid


Antidiabetic, antihyperlipidemic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, cytotoxic, hepatoprotective


Modern Research

Burdock seed headsSome gastrointestinal diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and chronic skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can be linked to persistent inflammation in the body. Burdock’s anti-inflammatory activities can help ease symptoms associated with these conditions. In clinical trials, burdock root preparations were correlated with a significant reduction in osteoarthritis pain26 and significant reductions in the clinical inflammatory markers interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) compared to baseline.27

Rat studies have demonstrated the gastroprotective properties of burdock root, seed, and leaf extracts, including healing gastric ulcers, a dose-dependent response for the healing of gastric mucosa,28 inhibiting gastric ulcer formation,29 and decreasing the inflammatory response associated with colitis.30 A combination formula that contained burdock, angelica (Angelica sinensis, Apiaceae), red gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon, Boraginaceae), and sesame (Sesamum indicum, Pedaliaceae) oil was found to improve biomarkers associated with antioxidant activity and serum polyphenol levels in subjects with asymptomatic Helicobacter pylori infections. Subjects also reported improvements in gastrointestinal ulcers. In vitro, the combination formula significantly inhibited H. pylori adhesion to cell walls.31

An in vitro study on the anti-inflammatory response related to atopic dermatitis found that burdock root extract stimulated immune cells and inhibited the antigen-induced mRNA expression and production of cytokines related to allergic and atopic reactions.32 Extracts of burdock root with concentrations of 100 µg/mL enhanced proliferation of splenocyte cells and downregulated IL-4 and IL-5, supporting the antiallergic and anti-inflammatory effects of burdock root. Burdock leaf extract also exhibited strong antiallergic activity in vitro.33

Human clinical studies provide evidence that extracts of various burdock parts, including fruit, can significantly improve dry skin and wrinkles.34,35 Purified extracts of burdock root were found to be effective against the bacteria that cause acne and exhibited low toxicity toward other strains of beneficial bacteria that may be found on the skin.36

Burdock may also benefit patients with type 2 diabetes. Animal studies have associated burdock root extract supplementation

Burdock leaves

 with reduced triglyceride and very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol levels and increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. These studies have also reported decreased leptin levels and liver glucose production.20,37 It is speculated that some of the polyphenols in burdock, including chlorogenic acid and fructooligosaccharides, can promote the uptake of

 glucose in the skeletal muscles. Lowering blood glucose may also increase cell viability that is otherwise weakened in a state of high blood sugar, which decreases the risk of developing tissue and organ damage.38 Clinical studies in humans with diabetic nephropathy (kidney disease) found that supplementation with burdock products (including fruit powder), isolated arctiin, and a TCM herbal combination product, significantly improved urinary albumin excretion rate versus placebo.39 Burdock root extract also was associated with significant decreases in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in elderly female participants, especially when combined with exercise, compared to placebo.40

The cytotoxic properties of arctigenin in burdock root have been investigated as a screening method for possible anticancer effects in humans. Arctigenin has been shown to target various molecular pathways that are involved in the formation and spread of cancerous tumors, including apoptosis (normal, pre-programmed cell death), metastasis (the development of secondary malignant growths away from the primary cancer site), and cell cycle arrest/cell proliferation. In addition, arctigenin has a synergistic effect in vitro, improving the efficacy of the chemotherapy drugs cisplatin, tamoxifen, and docetaxel.41 In humans with pancreatic cancer, oral administration of arctigenin had mild or no effects on plasma lactate levels, with no correlation to dose; the researchers speculated that this may be due to poor bioavailability of oral supplementation and recommended exploring other methods of administration.42

Consumer Considerations

Burdock is widely naturalized and highly adaptable, to the point of being considered an invasive species in some areas. Currently, there are no sustainability concerns.

Burdock root is well-tolerated by most individuals, though those with a sensitivity to foods high in the prebiotic inulin, such as Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus, Asteraceae), artichokes (Cynara cardunculus, Asteraceae), asparagus (Asparagus officinalis, Asparagaceae), or leeks (Allium ampeloprasum, Amaryllidaceae), may experience temporary gas or bloating post-consumption.6 No significant adverse effects have been reported with burdock root apart from rare cases of anaphylactic shock; however, patients should discontinue use and notify their health care provider if they suspect an allergic reaction.12 Burdock root has not been reported to have any negative interactions with other herbs or medications. However, since burdock root has been used traditionally to increase urine output, taking additional diuretics while using burdock is not recommended.


Nutrient Profile17
Per 1 cup peeled burdock root (approx. 118 grams)


85 calories
1.8 g protein
20.5 g carbohydrates
0.2 g fat
3.9 g dietary fiber

Secondary Metabolites:

Very good source of:

Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): 0.3 mg (17.6% DV)
Manganese: 0.3 mg (13.0% DV)
Magnesium: 45 mg (10.7% DV)

Good source of:

Potassium: 363 mg (7.7% DV)
Folate (Vitamin B9): 27 mcg (6.8% DV)
Iron: 0.9 mg (5% DV)

Also provides:

Phosphorus: 60 mg (4.8% DV)
Vitamin C: 3.5 mg (3.9% DV)
Calcium: 48 mg (3.7% DV)
Vitamin E: 0.5 mg (3.3% DV)
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 0.04 mg (3.1% DV)
Niacin (Vitamin B3): 0.4 mg (2.5% DV)
Vitamin K: 1.9 mcg (1.6% DV)

Trace amounts:

Thiamin: 0.01 mg (0.9% DV)

DV = Daily Value as established by the US Food and Drug Administration, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.


Recipe: Burdock Kinpira
Courtesy of Chichi Wang43

When shopping for burdock, choose plump, crisp roots, gently scrub to remove dirt, and briefly soak in acidulated water (one teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar to one liter water) to prevent browning or oxidation. To store, wrap in a damp paper towel, refrigerate, and use within a week.


  • 2 burdock roots, approximately one foot in length
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon saké
  • 2 tablespoons sugar


  1. Wash and peel burdock root. Cut the root into four-inch segments, then quarter lengthwise. Place the prepared root in acidulated water to prevent discoloration.
  2. Place a sauté pan over medium heat and add the oil. Sauté root for four to six minutes until lightly browned.
  3. Add soy sauce, saké, and sugar to pan. Simmer for five minutes, until the root is cooked through but still crunchy. Serve at room temperature or cold.

Image Credits

All photos ©2022 Steven Foster Group
Botanical illustration by Kawahara Keiga from Fauna Japonica (1838)


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