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 the 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 lawmakers 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 are using many other substances, totally unsupervised, and without the 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 seldom use comfrey internally. 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 Discreetly 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 do 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.
Originally published in April 2013. Updated December 2019.