What is Comfrey?
Comfrey is an age old medicinal herb that thrives in many of the world’s temperate regions from western Asia to Australia and North Africa. Known scientifically as Symphytum officinale, this perennial herb which was originally indigenous to Europe grows to around three feet in height and produces pinkish, mauve colored flowers and thick leaves. The herb thrives best in damp, marshy areas and sends down a long taproot which raises valuable minerals from the earth.
Both the leaves and its flowers are harvested in the summer while its root gets harvested in the fall or spring when the allantoin levels are at their highest.
Comfrey has an extremely long history of use as a medicinal herb. In fact there is documented evidence of its use going back to around 400 BC. During those long ago times, comfrey was generally used to stop bleeding, treat respiratory disorders and help broken bones to mend.
Experts believe that the medicinal attributes of the herb were originally unearthed in Europe before the plant found its way to other areas of the world. Early colonists transported the plant from Asia to North America causing the spread of the herb throughout the continent.
These days, it is not uncommon to see comfrey growing wild in gardens and meadows across the United States and Canada. Comfrey grows easily and with it being such a hardy plant, its propagation around the world was fast.
These days comfrey is still a popular herbal medicine which is used to treat a variety of medical conditions including wound healing and sore throats. There are safety concerns regarding its oral use and it is most often used as a topical remedy. Both the leaves and the root are used to produce medicine but the root is considered more valuable because of its higher nutrient content as well as higher levels of medicinal compounds like allantoin.
There are several ways to use comfrey but it is most commonly used in a poultice or tincture form.
Why Comfrey Works
One of the major reasons that comfrey comes with so many medicinal benefits is its high levels of a substance called allantoin. This compound helps to regenerate skin and stimulate new cell growth. There is also some evidence that it can reduce inflammation and maintain healthy skin.
Ointments and poultices made with comfrey are used to treat minor wounds, heal cuts, bites and bruises and even treat pulled muscles or damaged ligaments.
When it comes to oral use, comfrey has been used to make a tea that helped treat ulcers and other stomach issues. It has also been used to ease heavy menstruation, diarrhea, coughs, urinary tract infections and chest pain.
However, there is some concern about taking the herb orally. Comfrey contains a toxic alkaloid called pyrrolizidine which may damage the liver and could even be fatal.
Because of these concerns, many countries have acted to ban the use of comfrey in oral products. In the US, it is only available in cream or ointment form. Many other countries including Australia, Germany, the UK and Canada have prohibited its use in oral products.
Despite these warnings, the topical use of comfrey is still popular and can help treat a variety of skin issues. If you are looking for a natural way to treat insect bites, minor wounds or even diaper rash, comfrey may be the herb you have been looking for. Its topical use does not end there. Comfrey may also be a very useful remedy for people suffering from bone, joint or muscle pain. It is a popular choice for people suffering from arthritis and similar painful conditions.
When you make a poultice with comfrey, you can use it to relieve muscular aches and pains, joint pains like arthritis and also to relieve redness and soreness in the joints. People have also been applying comfrey topically to deal with minor wounds, bruises and insect bites for centuries.
Several studies have been done into the effects of comfrey when applied to the body topically. One study published in 2004 used 142 patients with ankle sprains and found that cream made from an extract of comfrey root reduced swelling and healing time. (1)
Another piece of research conducted in 2009 found that an ointment made with comfrey root helped treat acute pain in the back. (2) Another study conducted in 2006 found that the same comfrey root ointment helped relieve the painful symptoms of osteoarthritis in the knee. (3)
Yet another study published in 2007 was done with 278 patients suffering from skin abrasions. The researchers found that applying a topical cream made with comfrey root had a significant effect on wound healing. (4)
Making your Own Comfrey Poultice
A poultice made with comfrey is an excellent way to treat muscle pain, inflammation, injury or bruising. The reason that it works so well is down to its allantoin content which works as a natural healer by increasing the rate at which the body produces new cells. Once you have sourced your comfrey, it is not difficult to make your own poultice at home. While a blender could be useful, it is also possible to make a poultice by hand or with a simple pestle and mortar.
- Pick four or five large, fresh comfrey leaves though the amount you choose to use will depend on the size of your finished poultice. Rinse the leaves to remove pesticides and dirt then chop into pieces of around an inch.
- Put the chopped leaves into the blender, add around a quarter cup of cold water and blend thoroughly. (you can use a pestle and mortar to do the same thing.) When it is ready, it should resemble a thick soupy substance.
- Put the finished comfrey mixture into a clean bowl then sprinkle some flour onto it. Do this gradually, a tablespoon at a time while stirring each new tablespoon in well. Keep adding flour until the consistency of your comfrey mixture resembles peanut butter.
- You will need a soft cloth big enough to cover the area of your body you are trying to treat with some extra inches added to the edges.
- Spread your comfrey mix around a quarter of an inch thick onto the cloth leaving an inch or so on the edge untouched.
- Apply your finished poultice to the injured part of your body and cover with plastic wrapping to prevent leakage. Leave it on for at least an hour or even overnight.
Comfrey is generally applied topically because of the health fears linked to its internal consumption. That being said, there are still people who drink it in tea form and it has been used for many years as a tea. At this point, it is important to point out that despite the potential health benefits, there are definite fears about its toxicity.
Comfrey contains chemicals which may result in liver damage and even cancer. Because of these risks, it is essential that you speak to a doctor before taking comfrey internally.
Nevertheless, comfrey can still be made into a tea that some people are happy to sip or you can gargle without swallowing to treat sore throats, toothache and gum disease.
- Put around three heaped tablespoons of the root into a cup of boiled water.
- Allow it to steep for ten minutes or more.
- Strain the root and put it in a pan with a half cup of water then bring it to the boil.
- Strain again and mix the water with the previous cup to finish your tea.
- You can take a mouthful every few hours or use it as a gargle.
Precautions and Side Effects
- Ingesting comfrey is likely unsafe and might cause liver damage.
- Comfrey should not be taken by children.
- Pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid the external and internal use of comfrey.