Is it Safe to Use Comfrey?

Comfrey plant in flower.

Comfrey is perfectly safe to use externally and is a first choice remedy for fractures and slow healing wounds.

I’ve received a flood of emails regarding my previous article about comfrey speeding up the healing of a fractured finger. Most people were concerned about the safety and legality of comfrey.

So in this article I’ll try and debunk some of these safety issues.

Comfrey is Banned in Foodstuffs

Let’s start with comfrey’s status as a banned herb in South Africa as reported by one of our daily newspapers. Fact is, it is banned as an ingredient in foodstuffs. Yes that is right, you may not sell a foodstuff containing comfrey. And if you are into legal stuff then please read Regulation R1541 dated 13 December 2002 in terms of Act 54 of 1972 to see if there is any mention of growing it, having it, making a poultice or ointment, or any of the other ‘banned’ things as hyped up by the media.

The reason for its ban as a foodstuff ingredient is simple. Comfrey contains a class of substances called pyrrolizidine alkoloids or PA’s for short. Under certain conditions they apparently can cause the destruction of liver tissue by creating a condition known as hepatic veno-occlusive disease (HVOD), in which the cells lining the veins in the liver proliferate and choke off the veins.

Are You Human or a Rat?

So in comes our scientific method. To proof, or disproof, this to be the case, researchers fed a bunch of infant lab rats a diet of comfrey, twenty-eight times their body weight, over a period of nine weeks. During this time they were also injected isolated comfrey extracts. When the poor infants perished it was discovered that they did indeed had HVOD and, lo and behold, it was proven that comfrey was the cause.

Now since policy and law makers think that our human metabolism is identical to that of the rat which is susceptible to these PA’s, and not to that of the sheep which is resistant to PA’s, they had no choice but to take this scientific research seriously. The fact that you and I, as humans, would have to eat somewhere in the region of 80 comfrey leaves every single day for a period of nine weeks, to produce a similar ‘human experiment’ is of no importance.

Reported Cases of Comfrey’s Toxicity

Besides, since 1980, there have been four reported cases in the world literature of comfrey toxicity. Proving the severity of the problem.

Again it is of no consequence that before 1980, no human toxicity was ever recorded. Also, the four cases each involved very high consumption levels (one lady took ten cups of comfrey tea a day plus comfrey pills by the handful for more than a year) along with other complicating factors, including other illness and other potential sources of toxicity.

The rest is history as they say. Comfrey is banned for internal use in quite a few countries. Protecting those whose health is already compromised, and who is using many other substances, totally unsupervised, and without proper information.

Why Do Herbalists Use Comfrey Then?

So why then do herbalists keep on using comfrey when they know that it is banned as a foodstuff ingredient?

First up, contemporary herbologists seldomly use comfrey internally anyway. When they do, it does not make up the bulk of their diet. Not eighty leaves a day as in the infant rat’s diet anyway. What’s more, when they do take it (like our friend Ida did) they will usually take it in the form of a tincture made from dried leaves. And again, the dosage is not even close to that fed to the lab rats. If it were, they’d have alcohol poisoning long before they had any other contra-indications.

Also, research has shown that the PA’s occurs in higher concentrations in comfrey roots than the leaves and also that drying the leaves reduces this even further. Other research suggests that these alkaloids are not that soluble in alcohol anyway.

Be that as it may, since we seldom, if ever, take comfrey internally in medicinal doses, this ‘foodstuff ban’ does not bother herbologists at all. But it is interesting to note that farmers all over the world regularly feed comfrey to their livestock with very good results. Again posing the scientific question, are you and I rats or sheep?

Most contemporary herbologists use comfrey as a topical (external) remedy only. It is a powerful soothing and healing remedy if used in this way, as millions can testify. And there are no reports of any safety concerns for its external use.

The Comfrey Ban Discredits Herbal Medicine

But all is not honky dory. What does concern herbologists about the comfrey ban is that the media (and pharmaceutical industry) will often use it to discredit herbs in general. Their message is clear:

“You may safely self-medicate with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. But you dare not self-medicate with from the garden botanicals.”

This message does harm to the credibility of all herbs and it belittles our Creator who has given us the common sense, and the herbs to help relieve the suffering of people who often does not even have access to clean water to make a comfrey poultice.

Why do the pharmaceutico’s do this? I don’t know. Maybe one of the reasons is that iatrogenic disease is now officially the third leading cause of death in the U.S.A.  Beaten only by two of their primary fund generators, heart disease and cancer. And just in case you were wondering, iatrogenic disease is ‘doctor induced disease’ or ‘disease caused by medical treatment’.

I want to end with a tongue-in-the-cheek herbology sales pitch.

“For less than the cost of a visit to a city MD to get a pharmaceutical prescription for your cough, you can learn how herbal medicine really works (or don’t work) and how to debunk all the myths and hype you read in the media. And you’ll learn how to make a low-cost to no-cost, effective natural cough remedy in the process.

If you believe in being responsible for your own well being, and you want to improve your health and vitality learn how to make your own herbal medicine.

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  1. Thanks for your article! Love comfrey and use it for many things, as well as for internal use – I believe it cleanses and heals, I also believe that the big pharma and many other companies don’t like word getting out that doesn’t promote their best interests. It grows like wildfire, and has incredible healing properties – information on the herb is out there, for those curious enough to look. Funny isn’t it, cigarettes are legal and deemed safer than comfrey – makes you wonder 🙂

  2. We”ve always used Comfrey, borage in moderate quantities, steamed or done in sautes, to be added to meals. And we’re still here to tell the tale!,

  3. maria leandro says:

    Hi Helen from Transkei !
    My mother +I have successfully used, over the last 30 years, on the dogs, a tincture made from CHELIDONIUM MAJUS ( greater celandine ). To be used only externally.
    This is applied on spots where a tick is still attached. It seems to paralyze the tick and then it’s removed. The spot where it was, is then rubbed with more tincture, so it will lightly scar.over correctly. We also apply this for any external skin problems that need disinfecting. For example, dogs inner ear flaps sometimes have parasites: so if one places some of the tincture on small piece of cottonwool, then cleans the earflap, inside and out, no insect will attach to ear. On the one dog’s ears the flies tried to nest on edge of flaps, so this tincture has been miraculous for us.

  4. Straight shooting from the hip Didi, Australia & the USA are world leaders in banning the ‘good stuff’. In Oz you are allowed to buy borage, as a vegetable in a restuarant, yet it is banned as a herb, it’s ok to eat as food but not as a herb?
    Comfrey is often eaten in our home, we add a cut up leaf or two to many dishes, we add it to the mince or stew or meal once we remove the pot from the stove or turn the heat off.

    • Always great hearing from you Vaughan. The sad thing is that consumers so easily accept these bans.

      • Hi Didi,

        Excellent article on the safety of comfrey. There has never been a moment’s doubt in my mind that the banning of herbs by the FDA and others is nothing short of criminal.

        America spends the most by far on medication per capita, the highest in the world, but their life expectancy is the lowest in the world. I rest my case.

        • Ja, perhaps it is best to ‘rest the case’. But I’m willing to bet you won’t. 🙂 And I probably won’t forgive you if you do. LOL.

    • I might of added that most herbs (not all) are best, to my mind anyway, when added to the pot when the heat source is removed. This goes for a lot of vegetables as well. Nutrients are easily destroyed by temperatures above 90 or 95 degrees Celsius. Nutrients are lost through boiling, or even lengthy periods of light cooking. Correct me if I’m mistaken. I’ve been known to be mistaken before! 😉

      • Interesting point you are making. When to add herbs to a pot will depend on your goals I think. If it is just the nutrients you are after then by all means don’t over cook them.

        • Yeah, as usual, you are 100 cement, flavour and nutrient retention don’t always live on the same floor. Not only flavour, in some cases texture, colour or taste could be what is desired. Thanks Didi, you’ve set me straight on yet another interesting point.

  5. Hi Helen, thanks for sharing this article. I’m guessing that you are using a poultice made with leaves to treat the Pondo-sores? It will be interesting to hear what you are doing.

  6. Christina says:

    Ja wat makeer die farmaseutiese? Hoor mens dalk die getinkel van klatergoud êrens in die agtergrond…?


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