A review of the pharmacological effects of Arctium Lappa (burdock)
Yuk-Shing Chana, Long-Ni Chenga, Jian-Hong Wua, Enoch Chana, Yiu-Wa Kwanb, Simon Ming-Yuen
Leec, George Pak-Heng Leungd, Peter Hoi-Fu Yua, Shun-Wan Chana
a State Key Laboratory of Chinese Medicine and Molecular Pharmacology, Department of Applied
Biology and Chemical Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
b Institute of Vascular Medicine, School of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese
University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
c Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences, University of Macau, Av. Padre Tomas Pereira S.J., Taipa,
Macau, PR China
d Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacy, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
*Dr. George Pak-Heng Leung, Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacy, The University of Hong
Kong, Hong Kong SAR, PR of China. E-mail address: email@example.com; Phone:
+852-28192861; Fax: +852-28170859
*Dr. Shun-Wan Chan, State Key Laboratory of Chinese Medicine and Molecular Pharmacology,
Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University,
Hong Kong SAR, PR of China. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: +852-34008718; Fax:
This is the Pre-Published Version.
Abstract. Arctium lappa, commonly known as burdock, is being
promoted/recommended as a healthy and nutritive food in Chinese societies. Burdock
has been used therapeutically in Europe, North America and Asia for hundreds of
years. The roots, seeds and leaves of burdock have been investigated in view of its
popular uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this review, the reported
therapeutic effects of the active compounds present in the different botanical parts of
burdock are summarized. In the root, the active ingredients have been found to
“detoxify” blood in TCM term and promote blood circulation to the skin surface,
improving the skin quality/texture and curing skin diseases like eczema. Antioxidants
and anti-diabetic compounds have also been found in the root. In the seeds, some
active compounds possess anti-inflammatory effects, and potent inhibitory effects on
the growth of tumors such as the pancreatic carcinoma. In the leaf extract, the active
compounds isolated can inhibit the growth of micro-organisms in the oral cavity. The
medicinal uses of burdock in treating chronic diseases like cancers, diabetes and
AIDS have been reported. However, it is also essential to be aware of the side-effects
of burdock including contact dermatitis and other allergic/inflammatory responses
that might be evoked by burdock.
Key Words: Arctium lappa (burdock); Traditional Chinese Medicine;
Starting from the end of twentieth century, the majority of people in developed
countries are becoming wealthier and more health conscious. They tend to spend extra
money on different functional foods or nutraceuticals in order to pursue healthy aging.
Natural products have been used in the treatment of various chronic human
pathological conditions because they are rich in antioxidants (Guo et al., 2008). In
traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it is believed that food and medicine stem from
the same origin but with different uses and applications (Chan et al., 2010). Therefore,
it is common for Chinese people to incorporate different medicinal herbs into their
diet to produce various “healthy” food recipes in order to achieve better taste, more
attractive appearance and improved texture of the food and most importantly to
Burdock, a perennial herb in the family of Compositae, stores most of its
nutrients during the first year. These nutrients are then used for the flower-blooming
process afterwards. The plant, which can be found worldwide, has been cultivated as a
vegetable for a period of long time in Asia (Morita et al., 1993). Burdock, called
“Niubang” in Chinese, has been used in China and some Western countries for over
3000 years and its therapeutic uses were documented in The Compendium of Materia
Medica (Bencao gangmu in Chinese) written by Li Shizhen, the most
famous/important figure in the history and development of TCM, during the Ming
dynasty (Yu et al., 2003).
Burdock is traditionally used to treat diseases such as sore throat and infections
such as rashes, boils and various skin problems. In TCM understanding, these
pathological events are mainly due to the accumulation of toxin in the body. The dried
root of one-year old burdock (Figure 1) is the major part used for different therapeutic
purposes although burdock leaves and fruit/seeds are also used. It is suggested that the
root of this herb is particularly effective and invaluable in eliminating heavy metals
from our body. Therefore it appears to have the function of draining toxins in terms of
TCM theory (Yu et al., 2003).
In contrast to some famous and expensive medicinal herbs such as Ganoderma
lucidum (Lingzhi) and Panax ginseng (Ginseng) that have been used for a long period
of time with their rich and highly acclaimed nutritional values, burdock possesses
various therapeutic values but is still sold at a low price. Moreover, it can be easily
cultivated. In light of the aforementioned properties of this herb, the aim of this
review is to summarize the currently available scientific information on burdock so as
to provide a comprehensive overview of this herb.
Active ingredients found in burdock
With the advancement of different state-of-the-art analytical techniques, more
active ingredients of burdock have been identified over the last decade (Park et al.,
2007). The major active ingredients isolated from this herb are: tannin, arctigenin,
arctin, beta-eudesmol, caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, inulin, trachelogenin 4,
sitosterol-beta-D-glucopyranoside, lappaol and diarctigenin (Table 1). Apart from
these compounds, burdock also contains various common nutrients (Table 2).
The extracts from different parts of burdock have long been considered good for
health. They help enhance the body’s immune system and improve metabolic
functions (Lin et al., 2002). Biological activities and pharmacological functions
reported for the Arctium species include anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic,
anti-microbial and antiviral activities.
Inhibition of inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) expression and nitric oxide
(NO) production, suppression of pro-inflammatory cytokine expression, inhibition of
the nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-κB) pathway, activation of antioxidant enzymes and
scavenging of free radicals are the essential mechanisms of burdock’s
The extract of burdock has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory response by
inhibiting degranulation and release of cysteinyl leukotrienes (Cys-LTs) by peripheral
blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs). Cys-LTs are synthesized inflammatory mediators
as histamine and prostaglandins. The blockade of Cys-LT is regarded as inhibition of
inflammatory response. Also, the extract of burdock significantly inhibited acute
mouse ear edema due to induced allergic response. Therefore, there has been evidence
suggesting that burdock has significant anti-inflammatory effect (Knipping et al.,
Lappaol F, diarctignin and arctigenin, found in the seeds or leaves of burdock,
are lignans that can inhibit NO production. The excessive production of NO by iNOS
(EC184.108.40.206) is involved in various inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid
arthritis, autoimmune disease, chronic inflammation and atherosclerosis. Therefore,
inhibition of NO production by iNOS in macrophages are potential treatments for
certain inflammatory diseases (Wang et al., 2007). Lappol F and diarctignin strongly
inhibited NO production in lipopolysccachride (LPS)-stimulated murine macrophage
RAW264.7 cells with IC50 values of 9.5 and 9.6 µM, respectively (Park et al., 2007).
Further study elucidated that diarctigenin could directly target NF-κB-activating
signaling cascade by direct inhibition of the DNA binding ability of NF-κB and
inhibition of NF-κB-regulated iNOS expression (Kim et al., 2008).
Arctigenin, a phenylpropanoid dibenzylbutyrolactone lignan, potently inhibited
iNOS expression and NO production through suppression of NF-κB activation and
inhibition of I-κBα phosphorylation and p65 nuclear translocation in LPS-activated
macrophages (Cho et al., 2002). In addition, arctigenin strongly inhibited the
expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and IL-6,
in LPS-stimulated RAW264.7 cells, THP-1 human monocyte-macrophage and
differentiated human macrophage U937 (Cho et al., 2002; Zhao et al., 2009). Further
study showed that arctigenin-induced inhibition of TNF-α production might be
mediated by arctigenin’s potent inactivation of mitogen-activated protein (MAP)
kinases including ERK1/2, p38 kinase and JNK through the inhibition of MAP kinase
kinase (MKK) activity, leading to inactivation of activator protein-1 (AP-1) (Cho et
al., 2004; Zhao et al., 2009).
On the other hand, expression of inflammation-associated cyclooxygenase 2
(COX-2) and formation of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) are the results of increased NO
production. Inhibitor of COX-2 causes a potent inflammatory effect, since the
prostaglandin family is associated with the onset of inflammation. The methanolic
extract of burdock has been proven to be effective in inhibiting the expression level of
COX-2 mRNA. Therefore the anti-inflammatory effect of Burdock is attributed to the
lowered PGE2 release (Wang et al., 2007).
In view of the inflammatory processes, inflammation has usually been
investigated together with the pathway of free radicals. There have been a lot of
studies on the association between free radicals, oxidative stress and inflammation
(Weber et al., 2005; Abreu et al., 2006; Pontiki et al., 2006). Instead of just looking at
the action of drugs/herbs on pro-inflammatory cytokines or/and other inflammatory
mediators, their free radical scavenging capacities should also be considered. There
are increasing studies focusing on both the effects of pro-inflammatory signaling and
free-radical scavenging capacity of individual drug/herb, which may contribute to the
resultant anti-inflammatory effect of them (Lee et al., 2007). Recent studies have
demonstrated that burdock’s anti-inflammatory characteristics on
carrageenan-induced rat paw edema and carbon tetrachloride (CCl4)-induced
hepatotoxicity. The carrageenan-induced rat paw edema assay is a widely used model
for acute inflammatory testing. Burdock has shown to have significant inhibition on
the growth of rat paw edema in a dose-related manner, thus suggesting some
significant anti-inflammatory activities of burdock (Lin et al., 1996). Lin et al (1996)
demonstrated the antioxidant power of burdock extract by detecting the signal
intensities of 5,5-dimethyl-1- pyrroline-N-oxide (DMPO)-OOH in relation to
superoxide dismutase (SOD) concentration. For hepatoprotective effect, burdock was
shown to suppress the CCl4 or acetaminophen-intoxicated mice as well as the ethanol
plus CCl4-induced rat liver damage. The underlying hepatoprotective ability of
burdock could be related to the decrease of oxidative stress on hepatocytes by
increasing glutathione (GSH), cytochrome P-450 content and NADPH-cytochrome c
reductase activity and by decreasing malondialdehyde (MDA) content, hence
alleviating the severity of liver damage based on histopathological observations (Lin
et al., 2000; Lin et al., 2002). In summary, the anti-inflammatory action of burdock is
attributed to its high free radical scavenging capacities and antioxidant activity.
During the development of tumors, very large amounts of nutrients (oxygen and
nutrients) are required in order to sustain the rapid proliferation of the tumor cells.
However, tumor cells can still survive under extreme conditions like low oxygen and
low carbohydrate availability due to their relatively high tolerance to hostile
environment. Arctigenin, an active compound found in the seeds of burdock, has the
ability to eradicate nutrient-deprived cancer cells (Awale et al., 2006). In addition to
its board spectrum of activities on different cancer cell lines, e.g. PANC-1 and AsPC-1,
arctigenin seems to exhibit a highly preferential cytotoxicity to cancer cells that are
bathed in glucose-deprived conditions (Awale et al., 2006). This is because arctigenin
has a potent inhibitory effect on the phosphorylation of Akt (Guo et al., 2008), which
is stimulated under glucose-deprived conditions. Hence, the rate of glucose formation
in cancer cells is decreased, which in turn leads to cell death due to a lack of nutrients
(Awale et al., 2006).
Protection of cells from harmful substances can greatly reduce the chance of
tumor formation and thus suppresses cancer cell proliferation. Flavoniod-type
anti-oxidants and some other active polyphenol antioxidants found in the root of
burdock may account for the suppressive effects on cancer metastasis (Tamayo et al.,
2000). It has been shown that extracts of the root protect cells from toxic substances
and lower the mutations of cells (Miyamoto et al., 1993)
Tannin, a phenolic compound, is one of the most common active compounds
found in the root of burdock. It induces macrophage responses, inhibits tumor growth,
and possesses immuno-modulatory properties (Miyamoto et al., 1993). However,
tannin is potentially toxic in nature. It may cause stomach upset and at high
concentrations it has some dangerous side effects such as nephrotoxicity and hepatic
necrosis (Miyamoto et al., 1993). Therefore, the use of tannin should be carefully
Burdock has been used to treat diabetes by TCM practitioners. Several studies
have suggested that the root or/and fruit are possible parts with hypoglycemic effect.
Sitosterol-beta-D-glucopyranoside is considered to be the most potent and efficacious
substance among the large profile of active compounds found in the root of burdock.
It has demonstrated potent inhibitory effects on alpha glucosidase activities. Alpha
glucosidases are involved in the processing of glycoprotein and glycogenolysis.
Inhibitors of glycosidase are potential therapeutic agents in treating diabetes mellitus
and obesity (Mitsuo et al., 2005). In addition, gamma-glucoside-fructose ester, also
known as inulin, can help to regulate blood glucose levels. Inulin, a natural
carbohydrate present in the root of burdock, can act on cell surface receptors to keep
the blood glucose level constant, therefore improving the tolerance to high glucose
level. Also, the production of short chain fatty acids is also increased (Silver and
Krantz Jr, 1931). The anti-diabetic activity of total lignan from the fruit of burdock
has been studied in a model of alloxan-induced diabetes in mice and rats. It has been
proven that total lignan from burdock is a safe anti-diabetic agent and may help
prevent diabetic complications (Xu et al., 2008).
Anti-microbial and antiviral activity
It has been reported that the lyophilized extract of the leaves of burdock exhibits
anti-microbial activity against oral micro-organisms and is the most effective against
bacteria related to endodontic pathogens such as: Bacillus subtilis, Candida albicans,
Lactobacillus acidophilus and Psedomonas aeruginosa (Pereira et al., 2005).
Chlorogenic acid isolated from the leaves also have shown restraining effects on
Escherihchia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Micrococcus luteus (Lin et al., 2004).
Therefore, the leaves of Burdock may be useful in treating tooth/gum diseases that are
related to micro-organisms in the oral cavity. It is also a potential topical remedy for
skin problems such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis. In addition, the polyacetylene
ingredients extracted from the root of burdock also possess potent anti-bacterial and
anti-fungal activities (Takasugi et al., 1987).
Constituents of burdock have also demonstrated antiviral activity. Phenolic
constituents like caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid possess strong inhibitory effect on
herpesvirus (HSV-1, HSV-2) and adenovirus (ADV-3, ADV-11) (Chiang et al., 2002).
Arctigenin, one of the lignanoid ingredients, has demonstrated activities against
human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV-1) both in vivo and in vitro (Schroder et
al., 1990; Eich et al., 1996). These suggest potential uses of these promising natural
compounds isolated from burdock to treat infection by these viruses, especially HIV.
Lignans isolated from burdock have been shown to be potent platelet-activating
factor (PAF) receptor antagonists, calcium antagonists and hypotensive agent
(Ichikawa et al., 1986; Iwakami et al., 1992). Arctiin, a lignin isolated from burdock
seeds, has protective effect against 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo [4,5-b]
pyridine (PhIP)-induced carcinogenesis (Hirose et al., 2000). Besides arctiin,
polyphenolics in burdock, especially caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, also have
significant anti-mutagenic activity, and the anti-mutagenic capacity of the extract of
burdock has a positive correlation with polyphenolic content (Liu and Tang, 1997).
The anti-decrepitude effect of burdock has also been noted. Li et al. (2004) have
eluciated that the main mechanism of burdock’s anti-decrepitude effect involves
improvement of SOD activity and reduction of MDA and lipofuscin content.
Furthermore, burdock has been used as an adjunctive therapy or alternative medicine
for the treatment of gout, hypertension, arteriosclerosis and other inflammatory
disorders (Li et al., 2004).
However, burdock has also been reported to have side-effects. The most
commonly reported side-effect of burdock is the induction of contact dermatitis.
Patients suffered from contact dermatitis after extended topical use of the root oil of
burdock. Another reported case was a massage liniment containing burdock extracts
had caused contact dermatitis (Paulsen, 2002). There was also case of development of
anaphylaxis due to burdock consumption. A Japanese man had developed urticaria 10
times after consuming boiled burdock as food, with redness occurring over his entire
body. In addition, he experienced difficulties in breathing an hour after consuming
boiled burdock. It was found that this patient had a low blood pressure of 64/29
mmHg. He was diagnosed to be in anaphylactic shock (Sasaki et al., 2003). Therefore,
it seems to be a misconception that herbs that are of natural sources have less
side-effect comparing to drugs. It was suggested that adverse clinical effects for
herbal drugs range from allergic skin reactions, the Stevens-Johnson syndrome and
photosensitization to toxic dermatosis. Since most herbs are readily accessible by the
general public, increasing number of cases of herb-induced adverse effects is expected
(Niggemann and Gruber, 2003). Therefore, public awareness about the possibility of
adverse effects of medicinal herbs shall be enhanced.
Burdock contains many active ingredients (isolated from different parts of the plant)
that have been shown to possess many therapeutic effects for the treatment of various
diseases. Multiple reports in the literature have demonstrated a wide range of possible
clinical uses of this herb because of its anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor/cancer,
anti-diabetic, anti-microbial and antiviral effects. In conclusion, the medicinal use of
burdock in treating chronic diseases like cancers, diabetes and AIDS is promising.
However, it is also essential to be aware of the side-effects of burdock including
contact dermatitis and other allergic/inflammatory responses that might be evoked by
burdock. It is expected that further investigations will lead to a better understanding of
some other roles that Arctium lappa plays in preventing and treating of human
diseases, as well as the potential adverse effects and toxicity of the herb. That could
provide us with more information on the beneficial effect and the potential risk of
consuming burdock as a functional food.
Acknowledgments. This research was financially supported by the Department of
Applied Biology and Chemical Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
and State Key Laboratory of Chinese Medicine and Molecular Pharmacology,
Shenzhen. Special thanks go to Ms. Siu-Hung Tsui and Ms. Josephine Hong-Man
Leung for proofreading and providing critical comments on the manuscript.
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Table 1 General compounds and effects of burdock reported in the literature
Table 2 Major nutritional ingredients contained in the burdock roots
Fig. 1 The root of burdock
Table 1 General compounds and effects of burdock reported in the literature
Classification Compound Molecular
Parts of the
Suppressor of heat shock；
(Ishihara et al., 2006)
(Awale et al., 2006)
(Gao et al., 2002)
antiproliferative activity against
B cell hybridoma cell, MH60
(Takasaki et al., 2000)
(Hirose et al., 2000)
(Matsumoto et al., 2006)
Ca2+ antagonist activity ;
(Ichikawa et al., 1986)
(Xia et al., 2001)
C40H42O12 Fruits, seeds
Inhibiting NO production (Park et al., 2007)
Inhibiting NO production;
(Park et al., 2007)
Antibacterial, .antiangiogenic (Yayli et al., 2005)
(Tsuneki et al., 2005)
the skin of roots
free radical scavenging activity
(Pari and Prasath, 2008)
(Bhat et al., 2007)
the skin of roots
(Li et al., 2008)
(Bouayed et al., 2007)
(Chen et al., 2004)
(Miyamoto et al., 1993)
(Bralley et al., 2008)
Prebiotic effectiveness ;
(Li et al., 2008)
(Rault-Nania et al.,
(Silver and Krantz Jr,
mammalian DNA polymerase
λ; anti-diabetes and obesity
(Mizushina et al., 2006)
(Silver and Krantz Jr,
Table 2 Major nutritional ingredients contained in the burdock roots
Types Nutrient ingredients
Amino Acid Essential amino acids Aspartic acid (25-28%) Arginine (18-20%)
Metal elements Potassium Calcium Iron Magnesium Manganese Sodium Zinc Copper
Vitamins B1 B2 C A
Others Crude fiber Phosphorus Carotene
Fig. 1. The root of burdock