Among the wide variety of herbal remedies found throughout the world, very few actually come from the western world. Most remedies fall into the categories of traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine, with a few native American remedies and a scant few coming from western Europe.
One of the few that does come from Europe, though it's also present in Asia, is birch. Birch is a tree – an iconic tree used in a lot of forestry imagery because of its striking white bark and distinct pattern – and it is the bark of that tree that is used as a medication.
Using the bark of a tree is not uncommon. Cinnamon is the bark of a tree, dried and ground. Willow bark was used as a pain reliever for centuries before aspirin supplanted it as a common and easily accessible pain reliever. Plants, as you probably know, are often packed with a wide variety of chemicals and compounds that have biologically active effects, whether they're bad or good.
Birch bark is known by many names, including Abedul, Arbre de Sagesse, Betula, Betula alba, Betula pendula, Betula pubescens, Betula Verrucosa, Betulae Folium, Biole, Bois à Balais, Boulard, Bouleau Blanc, Bouleau Odorant, Downy Birch, Sceptre des Maîtres d'École, Silver Birch, and White Birch. Most of these are derived from either foreign language words for the tree or the scientific name for the tree, which is the genus Betula. There are over 50 varieties of birch, all of them closely related and used more or less interchangeably.
Birch has a huge array of uses, from decorative to furniture, including speaker boxes for audiophiles. The bark was even used as paper in antiquity, due to being easily stripped, thin, and easy to obtain. As far as medical uses, it has only been approved in one medication, in the European Union, as part of a mixed topical cream used to stimulate healing in small cuts and scrapes. In some ways, it's similar to something like Neosporin, used to help minor cuts and wounds heal faster.
One of the biggest uses of birch that has not been approved by the FDA or any other governing body is to relieve joint pain, particularly from arthritis.
As with any traditional medication, we like to understand what it's treating and how it's treating it before we recommend it to you. So, can we recommend birch bark, or should you look elsewhere? Let's dig in.
What Causes Arthritis?
First up, let's look at arthritis. What is it, what causes it, and what can treat it?
"Arthritis" is a compound word, as most medical words are. The suffix [-itis] means "inflammation", and the prefix [arthr] comes from the Greek word for joint. In other words, joint inflammation. In today's parlance, arthritis is simply the term used for joint pain. There are over 100 different types of arthritis, ranging from degenerative bone diseases to infections to generalized bodily inflammation.
Some forms of arthritis can be cured, while others cannot. For example, if you have an infection that is causing inflammation throughout the body, which is causing joint pain, then curing that infection will cure arthritis. If you have a genetic or autoimmune disease that is causing a degenerative breakdown of cartilage and joint lubrication, modern science knows of no cure. Thus, whether or not birch bark can help depends a lot on the cause of arthritis.
Modern treatments for arthritis range from antibiotics to supplements to joint replacement surgeries. Again, it all depends on what is causing arthritis in the first place. Using drugs or supplements to reduce inflammation and alleviate joint pain can work for a time, but unless the root cause of the arthritis is addressed, all you're doing is managing symptoms.
What Birch Bark Does
Now let's take a look at what birch bark is purported to do and what science has found it can do, which are often two different things.
Throughout human history, birch, much like many herbal remedies and alternative medicines, has been used to treat just about everything. At some point, someone has tried it for or claimed it can cure: joint pain, kidney stones, bladder stones, urinary tract infections, actinic keratosis, dandruff, hair loss, and much more.
Birch has also been used as part of a detoxification and cleansing program. The primary reason for this is that birch is a diuretic, which means it makes your body get rid of water, usually through urine. The idea is that this speeds up your body's natural cleansing process and helps you purge toxins faster than normal, though there is not much evidence to suggest that this works. We've written more about cleanses here, as well as the differences between detoxes and cleanses, and ways you can stay safe and healthy while cleansing here.
Scientific studies into birch, including the extracted betulin and betulinic acid, cover a surprisingly small range of topics, mostly focused on cancer more than other diseases.
- This study tests a concentrated extract of betulin against four types of cancer, and found some anti-proliferative effects, though the tests were in vivo and not in human subjects. The study also showed some anti-inflammatory effects.
- This study cites some studies showing the effectiveness of a betulin extract at helping accelerate wound healing and is partially why the European Union approved it in medication.
- This study further cites the anti-inflammatory effects of birch extracts in concentration, in vivo studies.
So, we can learn three things from these (and other studies, if you want to dig deeper yourself.)
First, birch bark extract is being studied as a potentially beneficial ingredient in fighting off certain kinds of cancer, but research has not gone very far as of yet. Modern study has only been picking up for around 40 years, and it takes a very long time to isolate, test, and approve any drug for the treatment of cancer.
Second, a common side-effect of betulin, the primary active ingredient in birch bark, is a reduction in inflammation. This is, however, largely seen primarily in high concentrations and in tests on mice, not on humans, and the levels of betulin necessary to achieve these effects may not be available in something like a supplement or tea.
Third, birch has not been widely studied for effects in other areas of health or against other diseases. In our research, we were unable to find much connecting birch and arthritis; in fact, the arthritis foundation website, a huge accumulation of knowledge about the range of arthritic diseases, has zero mentions of any birch on its site.
From what we know about how arthritis works, we can say one thing for sure: birch is not a cure. The anti-inflammatory properties of birch, specifically, betulin, may be able to help alleviate some of the pain of arthritis. However, other anti-inflammatory supplements and drugs are much more effective than birch bark, particularly when you're unable to develop concentrated extracts on your own or purchase them easily. It likely won't hurt to try, but it's not going to be a miracle cure.
Cautions and Concerns
One thing we can say for birch bark is that it's generally considered safe, both for topical uses and for ingestion, at least in moderate doses. Anything can be harmful if you eat enough of it at once, but you're unlikely to be eating piles of birch bark in place of other meals, so you should be fine on that front.
One thing to keep in mind is that birch is a tree, and it's a tree that generates pollen. Some people find that they are allergic to birch, and that means the topical application of birch can cause an allergic reaction. It's possible that ingesting birch could also cause anaphylaxis, so be careful not to take much the first time you take it, and make sure you're able to monitor yourself and can contact emergency services if you experience the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Medically, the only thing that is known about the side effects of birch is that it may cause a higher level of sodium retained by the body. This higher level of sodium can contribute to water retention and, more importantly, to high blood pressure. If you're already watching your sodium levels or have high blood pressure, you should strive to minimize sodium even more than usual before taking birch bark.
One of the intended effects of birch is that it operates as a diuretic. In other words, it causes your body to lose water, usually by urination but also through sweat. While this can be unpleasant, it can also lead to dehydration faster than you would otherwise experience dehydration. If you're taking birch, make sure to drink more water while you're doing it, and watch for signs of dehydration and the related issues it can cause. Likewise, don't take it alongside other "water pills" or pills that induce urination.
Other than that, birch is generally safe to consume. As long as you're adequately hydrated and you're not allergic to it, you should be fine. Though, it should be noted that very little study has been performed on birch's effects on pregnancy, so if you're pregnant or trying to become pregnant, avoid birch just in case.
How to Take Birch
If you're interested in taking birch, particularly for joint pain, you'll need to ingest it. A topical cream can work for topical issues, but it will not penetrate the skin deeply enough to have an impact on your joints.
The most common way to take birch is as a tea. Birch can be broken up into pieces just like other plant matter and steeped in water to extract the nutrients it contains. It's not exactly very flavorful and has a bitter taste, but then, so do many medications.
You may also find birch supplements in the form of capsules filled with ground birch, with or without other supplements. Consuming this can infuse you with birch essence, though you will likely get a lot of other components of the tree and bark as well. This isn't always recommended.
Birch essential oil and liquid extracts are also common. These should be used in very small doses, as they can be very potent. Dilute them before using them for topical or ingested purposes. Generally, you will want to take a few drops of birch in a few ounces of juice, water, or another beverage. Be especially careful of alcohol-based birch tinctures.
Another way to look at all of the above is this: arthritis is a wide range of diseases and disorders that affect hundreds of millions of people every year. A lot of studies have gone into anything promising any sort of cure or relief. If something was found to be promising in birch, it would have been isolated and extracted long ago. After all, it's not like people are just now finding out about birch; it has been used for centuries and studied for decades.
Birch has anti-inflammatory properties, but not curative properties. Since arthritis is primarily an inflammatory disease (or a side effect caused by the inflammation caused by a disease), something that helps reduce inflammation can help reduce the pain of arthritis. Now if birch isn't quite your cup of tea, why not give us a chance? Our Arthritis Support drink may assist you with the symptoms of pain, inflammation, and much more! Be sure to check it out for more info!
So does all this mean birch can cure arthritis? Absolutely not. Does it mean that birch can help alleviate the symptoms of arthritis? Possibly, though it's difficult to say with any authority. Will birch help you alleviate the joint pain you suffer every day? Maybe! As long as you're careful about using it and make sure it doesn't interfere with other medications or supplements you're taking, it won't hurt to give it a try.
In fact, if you frequently use birch, let us know in the comments how well it works for you. Anecdotal evidence isn't data, and it's not entirely proof one way or the other, but other people looking to make their own decisions might want to hear what you have to say.