Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium or Tanacetum parthenium) is named for one of the herb's traditional medicinal uses as a febrifuge, from the Latin febrifugia,
Feverfew is a bushy and herbaceous perennial that grows from a branched and tapering root to produce erect, round and slightly grooved stems. The feathery, aromatic and bitter-tasting leaves are arranged alternately along the length of the many-branched stem. They are a yellow-green, stalked, and bipinnate with deeply cut, toothed segments in an oval shape. Flowers bloom in mid to late-summer in flat-topped clusters at the end of stems that may reach to a height of three feet. Smaller than daisies, and without the protruding central disk of chamomile, feverfew blossoms have yellow centers consisting of tightly-bunched tubular florets surrounded by creamy white rays. Bees seem to avoid feverfew, deterred by its pungent aroma. The plant self-seeds freely, and thrives in full sun or partial shade in most soil.
Feverfew leaves and flowers are used medicinally. Among its many uses, the herb has become a popular and proven herbal remedy for the treatment of migraine headaches. This important use of the plant was recorded as far back as 1633 by the British herbalist Gerard. With frequent use, over time, feverfew can reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine headaches and allay nausea and vomiting. It is most effective when used as a preventive. It acts to inhibit serotonin and histamine, substances that dilate blood vessels, and helps to prevent the spasms in blood vessels that trigger migraine headaches. This much-researched herb has been shown to inhibit production of leukotines and other inflammatory substances. It is an effective remedy for relieving the pain and inflammation of arthritis and alleviating hay fever, asthma and other allergy symptoms.
Other traditional uses of feverfew dating back to ancient Greece and Rome include its use as an emmenagogue, which is an infusion taken in cases of sluggish menstruation to relieve congestion and promote periodic flow. The herb has also been used after childbirth to help expel the placenta.
Feverfew was valued in past centuries for its believed protection against the plague and the bite of mad dogs. In the seventeenth century the herbalist John Parkinson recommended feverfew as a remedy to speed recovery from opium overdose. It has also been used in treating alcoholic delirium tremens, and to expel intestinal worms. The English physician Culpeper recommended an external application of the fresh herb to treat ague, as the disease malaria was once called. Feverfew is a bitter digestive and liver tonic. A hot infusion may reduce fever and congestion from colds. The infusion, taken cold, has tonic properties. Feverfew may relieve mild depression, promote restful sleep, and ease the nerve pain of sciatica and shingles. Externally the strong infusion is an antiseptic skin wash for treatment of insect stings and bites. The wash may also be used as an insect repellent. Feverfew leaves and stems, gathered fresh, may be used as a dye plant, with a chrome mordant, to produce a light green-yellow color in natural fibres such as wool. Feverfew flowers have a purgative action if ingested, and if the blossom heads are carried into areas where bees are located, the insects will fly away.
The active compounds in feverfew include sesquiterpene lactones, predominantly parthenolide. Other phytochemicals include pyrethrin, volatile oils, tannins, bitter resin, and flavonoids.
Feverfew should be harvested just as the plant comes into flower and before the blossoms are fully open. Leaves are removed from the stalks and dried on paper-lined trays in a light, airy room, away from direct sunlight. The dried herb should be stored in clearly-labeled, tightly-sealed, dark glass containers.
Capsules: Feverfew leaf in capsule form, at a 250 mg daily dose, is recommended for medicinal use. It may take four to six weeks before the herb provides noticeable relief. Studies of some commercially-prepared capsules revealed that many did not contain a sufficient quantity of the active ingredient to be medicinally effective. Feverfew may be more medicinally potent when gathered fresh. Three to four fresh leaves, taken daily over a period of time are medicinally effective. A certified practitioner can help determine the most effective and safest levels for individual cases.
Syrup: Fresh feverfew leaf can be added to honey, or to a simple sugar syrup. The honey will act as a preservative and mask the bitter taste of the herb.
Infusion: Two to three teaspoons of chopped, fresh feverfew leaves are placed in a warmed container. One cup of fresh, nonchlorinated boiled water is added to the herbs and the mixture is covered. The tea is infused for about 15 minutes, then strained. A stronger infusion, using double the amount of leaf and steeping twice as long, is useful as a skin wash for repelling insects, or soothing inflammations and wounds. The strong infusion has also been used as a mouthwash following tooth extraction. The prepared tea will store for about two days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Dosage: Feverfew may be enjoyed by the cupful three times a day.
Tincture: Combine four ounces of finely-cut fresh, or powdered dry herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the plant parts. Place the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 30 drops of the tincture three times a day.
Since herbal preparations are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumers in the United States should check the labels of commercial products carefully for dosage instructions and the part(s) of the plant used for or contained in the product. A 2002 study of commercial feverfew preparations found wide variations in the recommended dosages and parthenolide contents of the products that were tested. The researchers found that ".. intake of parthenolide would range from 0.06 to 9.7 mg/day, a 160-fold variation." Any adverse effects from feverfew preparations or any other herbal products sold as dietary supplements should be reported to the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, listed under Resources.
Feverfew should not be used by pregnant or lactating women. Children under two years of age should not be given feverfew. Chewing the fresh leaves may irritate the mucous membranes in the mouth causing mouth ulcers in some persons. Traditionally the fresh herb was enclosed between slices of bread to minimize the irritation and mask the bitter taste of the fresh leaves. Persons on prescribed blood-thinning drugs should not ingest feverfew as it might interfere with the rate of blood clotting.
Feverfew is a safe herb of proven medicinal value. No side effects are reported when taken in designated therapeutic doses. Some cases of contact dermatitis and airborne dermatitis, however, have been reported by researchers in Denmark and the United States.
According to the PDR For Herbal Medicines, feverfew may interact with anti-thrombotic medications, including aspirin and warfarin. The tannins in feverfew have been reported to interfere with iron absorption in persons who take supplemental iron.
Taking NSAIDs together with feverfew will decrease the beneficial effects of the herb.
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Herb Research Foundation. 1007 Pearl St., Suite 200, Boulder, CO 80302. (303) 449-2265. <www.herbs.org>.
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD