The History and Benefits of Comfrey

Comfrey has been used medicinally for over 2,000 years. In fact, it has been recorded in not only Biblical accounts in the canonized texts by the early Jews (See Herbs of the Bible), but also by the Greek historians in earlier writings. We’re talking AD writings, so very old texts. This plant has really been around for quite some time!

In researching the history, I found someone had already done a fantastic thesis on this. With that said, the following in italics is the thesis pulled from herballegacy.com on the History of Comfrey:

The earliest recorded Comfrey remedies were made only of the root. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded its use and recommended it to staunch severe bleeding and the Greeks later used the root to cure bronchial problems. The Greek poet-physician, Nicander, (of the second century B.C.) mentions the plant as a remedy for poisons in his herbal Alexiphar-mica; and another famous Greek physician, Galen (A.D. 130-200), mentions its healing powers in his writings as well. Greek physician Dioscorides, a well-known natural healer of his day, documented its use in his herbal and prescribed it for healing wounds, broken bones, as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.” This is why the herb was and is still often referred to as the ‘bone-knitter’.

Comfrey appears in monastery writings and herbals from A.D. 1000. Saxon herbariums recommended it for “internal bleedings, ruptures, hernias, for which purpose, to give one example, Comfrey leaves were heated in or over hot, near-ash embers, ground and stirred into honey, and then taken on an empty stomach.

In the seventeenth century, the leaves were also being used in tea form, though English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper still recommended the Comfrey roots, “full of glutinous and clammy juice…for all inward hurts…and for outward wounds and sores in [all] fleshy or sinewy parts of the body…[It] is especially good for ruptures and broken bones.” He also prescribed the herb for hemorrhoids, gout, gangrene, fever, respiratory and menstrual problems.”

John Parkinson, Master Herbalist and apothecary to King James I, raised Comfrey to a new level of well-deserved acceptance. His herbal, Theater of Plants, (1640) was the bible for contemporary herbalists and physicians of his day. He suggested using the herb internally as an expectorant for lung problems, in tea form to take away fevers and in syrup form for any inward hurts. For external applications, Parkinson cited his findings that the roots were great for gluing together torn flesh and broken bones; a decoction of the root was used to heal hemorrhoids; putrescent ulcers, gangrene, and similar problems were also noted to be helped by Comfrey.”

1812 English physician, Dr. William Withering, recorded various uses of Comfrey in his Systematic Arrangement of British Plants, Vol. II. He lists its edibility but notes that not all animals seek the herb as forage.”

People also used Comfrey for more than medicinal reasons-they cooked it in soups, stews and tossed it into salads; farmers cultivated it as fodder for their livestock; and one Englishman, Henry Doubleday, even used Comfrey as a substitute for the stamp glue, gum Arabic, that was difficult to obtain.”

In the Americas, the Native American Cherokee tribe is known to have used this plant internally for many ailments and early settlers raised the herb in their gardens.

Dr. Charles J. Macalister was the scientist who isolated allantoin from Comfrey and wrote about it’s healing benefits specifically in regard to a patient who was experiencing ulcers and severe vomiting. You can’t find a lot of the writings on a lot of this today online, but his book is called “Comfrey – An Ancient Medicinal Remedy.

IS COMFREY SAFE TAKEN INTERNALLY?

There were publications of the rodent toxicity studies done in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the obvious question of comfrey safety in humans. After the publications went out, Anderson and team (Anderson, P. and A.E.M. McLean, Comfrey and Liver Damage. Human Toxicology, 1989. 8(1): p. 68-69.) set out to determine if there was liver damage to be had in the population. He took twenty-nine healthy people that had been taking comfrey on a long term basis.

Individuals in the study had been using 0.5 to 25 grams of comfrey leaf per day for 1 to 30 years. Although liver damage can only be definitively determined by visual inspection of tissue obtained from a biopsy, serum markers for liver pathology are a good indication of liver disease. The researchers measured aspartate aminotransferase (AST), gamma-glutamyltransferase (AST), bilirubin, and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) as markers of liver inflammation, cholestasis, and cancer. All measurements in this small uncontrolled study were within normal ranges. comfreycentral.com

There are articles claiming the leaves and root can cause liver issues. This is because of a natural constituent the plant contains called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. The root is said to have more of this constituent which can damage the liver over a period of time.

It is thought that the publications on rodents and negative articles about the herb were fabricated and the idea that comfrey was bad for the liver came about when pharmaceutical companies realized that people were learning of its miraculous properties. It was such a threat to drug companies that it was banned in America. However, that ban is no longer in place and you can easily purchase this herb online, if not in health stores. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but something to think about it.

I have tried and tried to find some human studies done on the toxicity of comfrey taken internally, but all I can find are studies showing its benefits and in fact not causing harm at all.

And up until the rodent studies, it was used internally to treat various stomach issues deriving from the gastric mucous membrane. Comfrey contains anti-inflammatory properties and was considered great for the gut. It was used to treat inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, gout, thrombophlebitis, and diarrhea. Comfrey had also been shown to heal gastric ulcers and hemorrhoids and to suppress bronchial congestion and inflammation.

There is little to no research done on the internal use of comfrey as far as I can tell. And there really is no conclusive research into its safety for human consumption. Even the rodent toxicity study that was done, this was large amounts of the herb being injected into these rodents so one would have to wonder if small amounts would’ve exhibited the same liver damage response.

The presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in comfrey does present a health risk to humans that ingest it. However, the extent of this risk has not been determined and there is a great deal of evidence suggesting safe use in humans is possible.

Some questions that came to mind in researching this:

  • If comfrey was toxic to the liver internally, why wasn’t that documented in earlier writings? Is it because it was used infrequently and only to treat medicinally? Was there no way to really determine this?
  • Those who drank it daily as a tea, why was there no reported liver damage in those tested by Andersen?
  • It was documented that this herb was included in salads, did this cause liver damage and if so – why is there no documented death of liver disease due to consumption?
  • Because of the already highly toxic world we live in today and other nutritional and environmental factors – are we even able to thoroughly test liver damage from consumption of this herb without deducing that those other underlying factors may have been the cause?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions. To be cautious, if you are consuming this herb, I would recommend stopping.

BENEFITS OF COMFREY

Comfrey does have great benefits used externally! I have known this for quite some time, in particular when it comes to treating arthritis (Check out my blog Cause of Arthritis and Natural Remedies). The leaves can be applied topically as an effective poultice, and have been shown to regenerate tissue damage as it contains amazing properties such as allantoin to rebuild the skin cells and accelerate cellular ‘mitosis’.

While you should never apply comfrey to broken skin because of the possibility of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids getting into your bloodstream, it is SUPER effective as a poultice or an ointment & cream for tissues, broken bones, tendons, and nervous tissue damage. Creams and ointments are typically made from the comfrey root while poultices are made with the leaves of the plant.

Don’t know how to make a poultice? Check out my blog titled: Methods on Preparing Herbs as I explain in detail how to do this there.

And here’s a simple recipe to make an oil-infused comfrey ointment:

What You’ll Need:

  • 4 oz. dried Comfrey herb (powdered root or crushed leaf)
  • 8 oz. body-safe carrier oil, such as olive oil or almond oil
  • quart-sized mason jar
  • crockpot or stockpot

Directions

  • Add powder or crushed dried herb to the mason jar. Cover with the oil, and stir gently to distribute the herb throughout the oil.
  • Put the cap on the mason jar, and place the jar in a water bath in either a crockpot or a stockpot on the stove (if using the stockpot method, place a mason jar lid ring under the jar with your oil in it so the glass is not directly on the metal of the pot).
  • Gently heat the water and oil for 3–5 days, trying to keep the oil temperature around 110 degrees. The “warm” setting if you have it.
  • After 3–5 days, remove the jar and let the oil cool slightly so it’s not too hot to the touch, and then strain your oil through muslin, cheesecloth, or an old and clean t-shirt to remove the dried herbs.
  • Store your oil in an airtight jar in a dark, cool place. It will last for up to a year.

This herb is a powerhouse when it comes to renewing and regenerating tissue. Take a look at this excerpt from a study that was done on the use of comfrey externally:

In another open uncontrolled study, the efficacy of the same registered drug-containing comfrey herb extract was tested on 105 patients suffering from locomotor system symptoms (Kucera et al., 2000). The cream was applied twice daily. Functional disturbances and pain completely resolved in 57 of the 105 patients. A further 24 patients achieved normalization of function with continued moderately severe pain. Moderate improvement occurred in 21 patients, and three patients reported no improvement in their condition. Muscle pain proved most amenable to treatment with the cream, swelling and overstrain also responded well. “

This did make me wonder about the fast cell regeneration and if comfrey wouldn’t be an excellent facial to reduce lines and wrinkles and rejuvenate the skin. But that is not the case and I advise against it.

While topical use is great for arthritis to broken bones, this herb should be used in moderation (even externally) and in small amounts. Leaving it on the skin too long, as in a facial, would pump a lot of the bad stuff (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) with the good (allantoin). Your skin is your biggest organ and absorbs everything it touches so not a good idea in my opinion.

I do recommend if you decide to use the ointments and creams with comfrey, it should only be small amounts applied to the skin for no longer than 10 days at a time.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In conclusion, whether you decide to take Comfrey internally or not is your choice. Externally, this herb has some great healing properties which I’m sure of.

The lack of studies done on internal consumption (other than that written in books years ago) would lead me to believe there is not sufficient evidence to determine it’s safe consumption or not. Even if all of our ancestors did consume it at one point. But in my humble opinion and after much research on this; Comfrey is a botanical medicine, not a food supplement and not something to be consumed over a long period of time.

Herbs may be the most natural of medicines, but they are still medicines. All medicinal herbs that have the power to do good have the potential to do harm so it is very wise to do some due diligence in researching an herb before deciding to self-medicate with it.

Unnecessary Fear in taking Herbs

There is a lot of fear and uncertainty in taking herbs. And a lot of herbs should not be taken in conjunction with modern drugs and medicine today nor used long-term. They are medicine, not a daily supplement, and as such should only be used in moderation.

Unfortunately, the same unnecessary fear and worry have crept into many natural health websites and popular publications on herbs. Herbs that we have safely used for thousands of years, that have no reports of adverse reactions in the medical literature despite widespread use by millions of people, are suddenly described as contraindicated because of something that should have been seen as completely unimportant, or at the utmost a merely theoretical concern, such as a laboratory study on one of the herb’s constituents to use an all too common example.

My checking many years worth of comprehensive annual reports of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, a nation-wide database, fails to find a single death from comfrey. In my opinion, proper, temporary use of herbals is not nearly as dangerous as the drugs doctors employ in their place.” – Andrew W. Saul of doctoryourself.com

I urge you to check out the studies and references below and do your own research. Please let me know what you think of Comfrey in the comments below!

STUDIES AND REFERENCES:

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