Burdock: Desmutagens and the B-Factor

Posted to Subscribers on 2 October 2013


Dear Subscribers,

This post will be both very serious and casual. I want to show how the dots eventually connect as well as present some material that ought to be on everyone's radar.

When researching the historic cancer treatments covered in my book, I tried, before the Internet was as developed as it is now, to find out as much as I could about the role each herb played in the various recipes and formulae included in the published version of the book. I still have hundreds of pages of unpublished notes. Of the many herbs used, burdock stood out as one of the truly underestimated but significant herbs. It is one of the ingredients in Hildegard of Bingen's Duckweed Elixir which she said protected the patient against developing cancer. Then, there was one herb that to-date no herbalist or medicine man has identified. It is called "boar's tusk root" and I suspected it was burdock. It was used externally in conjunction with jimson weed, a highly interesting plant, and roasted young poke root. We find it again in the famous Hoxsey Tonic as well as the Essiac formula.

Burdock is so controversial among herbalists that it is sometimes excluded from mention in textbooks though I doubt this is as much the case now as some years back. As you know, I grow burdock and eat it, sometimes made in a manner similar to a potato pancake and sometimes as a stir-fry vegetable. It is decidedly Zen-like in taste and texture. Though native to Europe, it grows almost everywhere, perhaps thanks to its burs that cling to clothing and thereby assure transport to new habitats. To give an idea of how revered burdock is in Japan, about two weeks ago, I was invited to an all-Ravel concert in Seattle by some Japanese friends. In the car on the way to Seattle, I was offered some burdock tea! As a tea, burdock is detoxifying. It is also a blood purifier.

German and Japanese researchers agree that burdock has both antifungal and antibacterial actions. Hungarian researchers found antitumoral properties among the constituents of burdock, but what is the focus of today's post is Japanese research that identified a constituent they named the B-factor that prevents or inhibits mutations that lead to cancer. This property is called a desmutagen, ergo the title of the post. A desmutagen is basically any compound that inhibits the mutagenicity of known carcicinogens or other mutagenic substances or energies, such as radiation.


I would like everyone to see how carefully I have tried to lay the foundations for appreciating plant medicine. Hildegard of Bingen felt that one needed the eyes of the soul to understand plants. I suppose this is true, but others can connect dots, conduct research, and observe interactions. Anyway, I wrote about this in the 90s and since then have published burdock recipes on KitchenDoctor.com and gardening instructions on LandscapingRevolution.com and burdock thumbnail sketches in several posts to my subscribers. In addition, I have many formulas containing burdock as well as a tincture of burdock root. To give you an idea as to how difficult it is to get a message across, I checked all the sales for the last two years. Exactly two packets of burdock seeds were sold and 13 bottles of the extract. Yet, this is a major herb for our times. People are writing me about the high incidence of birth defects but instead of being helpless, one could be proactive.

What research of the B-factor suggests is that when the mutagen is exposed to burdock's precious chemicals, the mutagen is irreversibly decreased in potency. Now, who should take burdock? We have to look at other traditional uses. Burdock is used for various skin conditions, especially psoriasis. It is also used by diabetics as a food to increase dietary fiber and thereby inhibit the absorption of sugar. The same mechanism protects against toxicity by inhibiting absorption in the lower intestine. Burdock is also used as a liver protective and liver regenerative herb. . . and as a male aphrodisiac. If this were not incentive enough to include burdock in your efforts to be healthy, the roots are free-radical scavengers and have anti-aging properties.


Since radiation does not have an odor or taste and we can't see it, the main concern we have is that exposure to radioactive materials may result in cellular changes that eventually lead to cancer. If there are herbs that protect against the cellular damage, we should be including them in our food and herbal intake.

Here are a couple of the issues that come up on my screen sometimes. First, nearly all studies of radiation are based on excessive use of medical irradiation on lab animals. There is actually very little originality in the studies. The animals are given a substance, an herb or drug, and then exposed to lethal full body irradiation. If they survive, the substance is radioprotective. If they die, the substance has insufficient protective properties. For obvious reasons no similar studies are performed on people, but there are hardly any studies of the standard use of radiation to see what the dangers are and what might protect against harm. If something as pervasive and profitable as radiation therapy were found to be dangerous, you can be sure the risks would be concealed so as to protect profits rather than health. Unfortunately, we live in this kind of world.

Likewise, the fallout from nuclear testing, nuclear power plants, and the use of depleted uranium in weapons is also not taken very seriously even though hundreds of thousands of people suffer from side effects of the misuse of nuclear energy. The studies of victims of the Hiroshima bomb were superficial and short-term . . . except for a few remarkable Japanese scientists whose work I occasionally bring to your attention. When it comes to nuclear disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, the risks are downplayed as are the longer-term consequences. To make this clear, the deaths attributed to the Chernobyl disaster range from a few thousand to well over a million (and still counting). In Japan, the situation is no different and the reason is that the nuclear industry is very powerful and doctors follow orders.

So, if radiation levels are not widely reported, if contamination of seafood and dairy products is glossed over, and if miscarriages and birth defects are attributed to some other anomaly, we know that the two reasons are crowd control and industry influence. Who survives is therefore partly an issue of awareness. The more you know and the more you use the knowledge you have, the better off you will be.

Now I will take a little detour and visit some other dots.

Sometimes, we only know a little bit about a plant here and perhaps another one there. I have been to lectures in which the speaker only mentioned one plant as if that plant were the begin all and end all. The reality is that there are millions of plants and we know very, very little about most of them. An herb book might discuss 100 herbs. Occasionally, there is a really big book that covers several hundred herbs, but none even begins to embrace 10,000 much less a million. So, if someone mentions bloodroot as a cure for cancer, it puts tremendous pressure on that one plant which is already an endangered species and ignores the other 2500 or 3000 plants with known anticancer activity. When I researched my book, I kept a map of the world in my notes and constantly added herbs from every culture that addressed malignancies. Then, we see both how diverse the botanical world and ethnobotanical traditions are as well as how bountiful and generous Mother Earth is. However, each culture handles the information in its own unique manner. If we use traditional Chinese medicine language or Ayurvedic classification systems, we would have to know the energetics of the herb, the taste, and main traditional uses, and so on and so forth. In another culture, there may be no references to meridians or doshas so we have to learn that medical tradition in the way it is taught by its medicine makers and shamans. In the end, it's very hard to compare bloodroot with pau d'arco or burdock with guduchi, but clearly the efficacy is not affected by the incompleteness of our understanding.

Mutagens and Desmutagens

Now, let's return to the concept of mutagens and desmutagens. Mutagens are found everywhere at this time in our Earth history. They are abundant in pesticides and chemicals. One can also cause mutagens when preparing food, such as overheating oil or barbequing and burning meats. The body stores many of the toxic mutagens in fat which no doubt explains why certain cancers develop in certain tissues.

Since I am deluging you these days, I will wrap up this post by noting that it would be fair to say that many of the foods known to protect against cancer are also probably desmutagens, foods such as cruciferous vegetables. Hildegard of Bingen's favorite herb, galangal, also comes up in many bibliographic notes as a desmutagen. It is a common ingredient in Thai food, my favorite cuisine, and Thai dishes have indeed been tested for their desmutagenic properties. This was done by serving entire dishes prepared in a traditional manner, not by analyzing the individual ingredients in the dish much less the chemical constituents of the ingredients.

Some essential oils are also mentioned as desmutagenic. These include bay laurel, which I happened to have added to some ointments used to reduce lymph nodes, as well as oregano oil. The researchers however seem confused as to whether they were using the type of oregano used in cooking or the type used for distillation. It is the wild oregano that was desmutagenic.

You know that I am writing all these posts so as to build a very strong "library" for future reference so that more and more of my energy can go into the new projects associated with the Institute. This post will be followed by additional posts covering herbs that are anti-mutagenic, a slightly different term than desmutagenic, and then those that are capable of repairing damage that has already occurred. It is important for me that you are comfortable enough with the herbs to use them with confidence.




Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2013

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